Innovation – The Candle Puzzle

Karl Duncker, a Gestalt psychologist, set up an experiment testing the ingenuity of the human mind.  On a table he placed a box of tacks, a book of matches, and a candle. The objective, attach the candle to the wall.  Participants eyed down the materials.  Some tried to use the tacks to fasten the candle to the wall. Not bad, but not successful. Others stepped up their game, trying to melt the candle to the wall by burning the wax.  Still no call for celebration.

Not until they stretched their minds and overcame their fixed mindsets were participants able to crack this riddle.  If you no longer see the box of tacks as solely a holder for those tacks, but also a means to attach the candle to the wall, then you are utilizing something we call creativity, a means of using ones imagination to create original ideas.

In conducting this experiment, Duncker discovered a phenomena known as functional fixedness, using objects only for their preexisting functions.  Participants had trouble overcoming their preconceived thought of the boxes’ purpose.  What is interesting was that with a slight manipulation of the experiment Duncker found vastly different results.  When the tacks were placed outside the box participants were two times more likely to figure out the problem.  They no longer saw the box for the sole purpose of holding the tacks.  Instead the box carries with it many possible uses, in this case the use of fastening a candle to a wall.

Now I’m not bashing our abilities to think creatively, merely pointing out the notion that at times something that could be very obvious can lay hidden right in plain sight.  In this case it was the candle box.  Staring participants in the face the entire time, the box did not change or come with some instruction manual the second time around.  No, it was the context of the box that let us think about it in different ways.

We see things for their uses and we see potential in those uses.  But what are we not seeing?  Clearly, as this experiment demonstrates, there are many functions for even the simplest things, like a box of tacks, that we don’t realize.  That, in turn, means that there are hidden potentials that we are unaware of.  Things we never realized were there, could be right in front of us the entire time.

Seeing things in unique and unprecedented ways is your power, your perception. Okay, this is going to sound cliche, but creativity comes from within.  It is your ability, your cognition, and your choice.  It is so commonly referred when describing artists because it, like art, simply exists.  It is not told what it should be or how it should look.  Like the strokes of a paintbrush, its movements reflect the imagination of its artist.  So when you add incentive to creativity it tends to diminish because it is no longer just existing. It is now linked to the fate of supplemental benefits.

The candle box experiment was tweaked once again, this time manipulating a time sensitive incentive one received upon completion.  Group A was told they were simply being timed to establish norms for how long it typically took for someone to complete the puzzle.  Group B was given a cash prize for completing this candle conundrum in the fastest time.


The results proved most interesting.  It took on average three and a half additional minutes for the incentive group to figure out how to attach the candle to the wall.  That’s right, the group that had no external motivator finished significantly faster.  In Daniel Pink’s Drive, he provides extensive research and support that, “an incentive designed to clarify thinking and sharpen creativity ended up clouding thinking and dulling creativity.”

Why is this so? Rewards narrow focus. You are thinking of the end result and lose site of the wide view of functions and variety.  And so my cliche use of the phrase, “creativity comes from within” shows its purpose.  You see the world as you choose to.  There are copious ways to look at a single stimulus in the environment.  Just because something is given a purpose does not mean it is limited to those terms.  Yet by default this is how we tend to think.

Examine your life.  Everything in it you perceive a certain way. The objects you have, the people you encounter, the relationships you’ve made, all serve their functions in life.  But if a box that holds tacks can do more then keep shiny, metal  circles, then what do you think that means for the more substantial things in your life? What things have you had a fixed mindset on?  Challenge these automatic thoughts and behaviors in your life. They could be causing you to hold out on some pretty amazing stuff.  The ability to see this world and all its different shades of grey comes from within, everything else is just another shade of grey.

June 22, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Team Building Tools | 3 comments

3 Responses to “Innovation – The Candle Puzzle”

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