Friday, 31 January 2014

Irritating Functional Fixedness

The objects of our world are so often secure in their place in a system of uses and meanings. They are “functionally fixed”. However, strategies can be learnt to think about objects differently by finding ways to uncouple them from these systems. Objects can irritate systems too.

In his article in Psychological Science (2012), “InnovationRelies on the Obscure: A Key to Overcoming the Classic Problem of FunctionalFixedness” Tony McCaffrey makes the following argument:

A recent analysis of real-world problems that led to historic inventions and insight problems that are used in psychology experiments suggests that during innovative problem solving, individuals discover at least one infrequently noticed or new (i.e., obscure) feature of the problem that can be used to reach a solution. This observation suggests that research uncovering aspects of the human semantic, perceptual, and motor systems that inhibit the noticing of obscure features would enable researchers to identify effective techniques to overcome those obstacles. As a critical step in this research program, this study showed that the generic-parts technique can help people unearth the types of obscure features that can be used to overcome functional fixedness, which is a classic inhibitor to problem solving. Subjects trained on this technique solved on average 67% more problems than a control group did. By devising techniques that facilitate the noticing of obscure features in order to overcome impediments to problem solving (e.g., design fixation), researchers can systematically create a tool kit of innovation-enhancing techniques.”

One example he gives is of what he calls the “two-rings” problem; a variation of the Candle Problem devised by Gestalt Psychologist Karl Dunker (1945). A subject is given the problem of fastening two metal rings together and supplied with two heavy rings, a candle, match, and a 2” steel cube. The match is a red herring in the assemblage because it points toward the wrong way to solve the problem through lighting the candle and melting the wax. The wax will not be strong enough to bond the rings. Instead, the solution is reached by recognising that the candle is comprised of a string and wax. On realising this, the cube can be used to scrape away the candle wax and the string used to tie the rings together.

McCaffrey’s strategy, then, is what he calls the “Generic Parts Technique” GPT. This involves thinking about an object independently from its normal use. To help in this he proposes concentrating on 4 aspects to an object which he claims are normally overlooked: (i) Parts (ii) Material (iii) Shape (iv) Size. Hence, by focusing on the generic and abstract features of objects participants are helped in finding their “obscure” elements. This helps in thinking creatively about how they may function in unusual ways.

The paper is clearly situated within the discourse of Cognitive Psychology and draws on the history of the problem of “Functional Fixedness” in Gestalt Psychology. Hence, it is couched in the vocabularies of: problem-solving; innovation; solutions and suchlike. However, the paper can be subjected to a version of the Generic Parts Technique itself and the implications of it rethought in aesthetic and philosophical terms.

The key to this lies in how McCaffrey identifies the inhibiting aspects of the normal functioning of the “human semantic, perceptual and motor systems.” It’s not too much of a step to move to recast these systems in the phenomenological vocabulary of intentional horizons. Then, the challenge to functional fixedness through a search for obscurity becomes an exercise in thinking outside of the “Natural Attitude” so familiar to Phenomenology.
Further, it seems that treating objects as “obscure” is precisely what artists and philosophers must do.
On the one had they might look at an object in terms of the medium through which they are re-presenting it – be that painting, or philosophical reflection. This is how Merleau-Ponty reads Cezanne’s paintings. Hence both the apple on a table and its painted counterpart become an interplay of its generic parts: parts, material, shape and size.

On the other both artists and philosophers will search out those often hidden metaphorical elements of things which are all too often overlooked. They are looking for the same thing as McCaffrey’s innovators, that is, to “create function free descriptions for each part” of objects and imagine new ways in which objects can be not useful; and discovered to be newly obscure.
And, to reiterate, the implications of this will extend beyond training ourselves in innovative approaches to solving discrete problems. Objects offer the potential to irritate social systems when they are allowed to drift free from their normal functional fixedness.

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