...problem solving may in some instances be delayed through the "functional fixedness" of solution objects. That is, owing to his previous use of the object in a function dissimilar to that demanded by the present problem, S [a person] is inhibited in discovering the appropriate new use of the object. [ R.E. Adamson - Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1952]
Functional fixedness was originally demonstrated in a 1920s experiment by Karl Dunker and later reproduced by R.E. Adamson at Stanford (1952). In the experiment, the task before students is to attach the candle to the wall, so that when the candle is lighted its wax doesn't drip on the floor.
When thumbtacks were provided in a box, only 40% of students figured out that the box could be used as a tray attached to the wall. The control group got thumbtacks and the box separately, and their success rate was 86%.
The difference in problem-solving outcomes was determined by people's fixation on the functionality of the box as a container rather than its possible use as a tray.
tags: psychology, creativity