Productive Thinking

"Productive thinking is impossible if the individual is chained to the past." Birch & Rabinowitz

Brain with gears and lamp image

One of the major areas discussed in this article involves creativity and is demonstrated in Buzan's exercise involving the uses of a paper clip. This provides an example of a psychological phenomenon termed "Functional Fixedness".

Briefly, Functional Fixedness means that we are fixed or rigid in our perceptions involving the uses of everyday objects, and this rigidity inhibits our ability to see how these objects can be used in novel ways.

A number of experiments have attested to the existence of Functional Fixedness. A classic experiment was one by Duncker (cited in Mayer, 1983), called the candle problem.

In Duncker's experiment, the subjects were required to mount a candle vertically on a screen to serve as a lamp. The subjects in Group 1 were given a box containing matches, a second box containing candles, and a third box containing tacks. The subjects in Group 2 were given the matches, candles and tacks placed outside of the boxes. The correct solution to the problem was to melt wax onto the box, attach the candle to the box with the wax and finally tack the box to the screen.

Duncker observed that the subjects in Group 2, who were given the supplies placed outside of the boxes were more apt to discover the solution than the subjects in Group 1, who were given the supplies placed inside the boxes. Duncker's explanation was that "The placement of objects inside a box helped to fix its function as a container, thus making it more difficult for the subjects to reformulate the function of the box and think of it as a support" (Mayer, 1983 page 56).

This knowledge regarding Functional Fixedness may have a tremendous impact in your life. Whether you are solving work-related or personal-related problems, you may become locked into your thinking by your preconceptions based on past experience.

By practicing exercises such as Buzan's paper clip demonstration, you will be able to break out of your own Functional Fixedness and increase your creative thinking. The concept of Functional Fixedness and related exercises can be found in most textbooks in the area of Cognitive Psychology, such as Anderson's (1985) text.

You may develop similar exercises that will decrease Functional Fixedness. It may prove worthwhile to start off using a single object, such as the paper clip, and increase the possibilities by using several objects and requiring that people think of new relationships between the objects, such as in Duncker's candle problem. We are rarely required to generate answers such as uses for a paper clip.

Rather, we are usually faced with solving complex problems involving relationships between many objects, people or concepts. By moving from exercises using single objects to relationships between objects, you can devise exercises that may become more relevant to your own needs.

An additional way in which these exercises may be beneficial is by practicing them as group brainstorming sessions.

Our own style of thinking of Functional Fixedness may be extremely personalised or individualised.

By being exposed to other's input, we may be able to see how combining our own thinking with their thinking can lead to new relationships and perceptions that are not as easily discovered when we are working alone.

The concept of Functional Fixedness also relates to another area discussed in this section - the problem of attaining goals. Often, it is the case that we may fixate on needless or irrelevant information that may obscure our goals.

Halpern (1984) provides an example of how this fixation on irrelevant details may prevent us from solving problems. Halpern poses the following scenario:

Pretend you are a bus driver. You start with an empty bus. At your first stop, 3 men and women get on. At your second stop, 4 men and 3 women get on, while 1 man and 2 women get off. At your third stop, 2 men and 1 woman get on, while 2 men get off. At your fourth stop, 5 men get on and 2 women get off. What is the bus driver's name?

While the above scenario is a humourous riddle, more importantly, it shows how fixating on the wrong elements may interfere with our concentration and our focus on our goals.

This focus on goals is critical if we are going to be able to pay attention to our tasks at hand. Interestingly, Buzan, in providing the outline of the course, in the last part of Unit 2, is providing the goals and directing attention towards these goals.

In the above riddle, the bus driver's name is Yours, since the first sentence said, "Pretend you are a bus driver."

You can benefit from findings such as Halpern's mentioned above. All too frequently, people in business are bombarded with an overabundance of information that may be irrelevant or unnecessary for them to accomplish the goals at hand.

For instance, it may not be important for all employees to be subjected to information that may not be relevant to their particular tasks. If a manager is giving an employee and overabundance of information that is not pertinent to the desired goal, the employee may not be able to focus attention on the actual task at hand and may have problems concentrating.

The results of the studies above provide strong support for Buzan's emphasis on exercises such as the uses for a paper clip and the relationship of these exercises to problems concerning reaching our goals. We often become locked into a way of thinking and this clouds our perceptions of the goal and the methods of reaching it.

By practicing exercises that will reduce our Functional Fixedness and by focusing on the relevant rather than the irrelevant information, we can break free of our reliance on past experiences and increase our productive thinking.

Another area discussed was that of stress and job environment. We all know that our environment affects us, but we may not be aware as to how great the effect may be. How often do we feel uptight, anxious or uncomfortable and are not able to pin our fingers on just what is bothering us.

In a classic study, Schachter and Singer (1962) devised an experiment that showed just how important our physical environment may be in determining how we interpret our own feelings.

Schachter and Singer injected two groups of subjects with adrenaline, a drug which results in heart racing, blood pressure rising, sweating, tingling and such. Some of us label these changes as representing excitement and we seek situations which give us these feelings, such as riding on roller coasters.

Others label these changes as representing anxiety, and we avoid situations which give us these feelings such as making speeches. It is critical to keep in mind that both groups of subjects felt the exact same changes physiologically.

The subjects were then placed in rooms with people in seemingly euphoric states or seemingly angry states. While the experiment in itself was far more complicated than needs to be explained here, the results were relatively straightforward. Those put in angry environment felt angry, while those in a euphoric environment felt euphoric, even though both felt similar physiological changes. In other words, while both groups felt the racing heart, jitters, etc, one group said they felt angry while the other group said they felt euphoric.

For a more complete understanding of the study, the interested reader is referred to Schachter and Singer (1962).

The results of the above study provide useful information that may be adapted to your workplace. The results suggest that we often measure our own emotional state by comparing ourselves to others in our environment.

Obviously, if the environment is perceived as a hostile one, with people communicating in an angry way, this environment will probably lead to more anger. On the other hand, even if an employee feels jittery and anxious, providing a peaceful environment may help the employee to attribute these feelings to a positive mental state and become more productive.

While this may sound trite, since we all take this information for granted, the above study provides experimental evidence showing just how dramatic an effect our environment has on how we interpret our feelings.


Anderson JR. Cognitive psychology and its implications. WH Freeman & Company, NY; 1985.

Halpern DF. Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey; 1984.

Mayer RE. Thinking, problem solving, cognition. WH Freeman & Company, NY; 1983.

Schachter S, Singer JE. Cognitive, social and psychological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review. 1962;69:377-399.