Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Stumped by a problem? This technique unsticks you

Date:
March 7, 2012
Source:
Association for Psychological Science
Summary:
Stuck solving a problem? Seek the obscure, says a psychologist. "There's a classic obstacle to innovation called 'functional fixedness,' which is the tendency to fixate on the common use of an object or its parts. It hinders people from solving problems." Researchers have developed a systematic way of overcoming that obstacle: the "generic parts technique."

Stuck solving a problem? Seek the obscure, says Tony McCaffrey, a psychology PhD from the University of Massachusetts. "There's a classic obstacle to innovation called 'functional fixedness,' which is the tendency to fixate on the common use of an object or its parts. It hinders people from solving problems." McCaffrey has developed a systematic way of overcoming that obstacle: the "generic parts technique" (GPT), which he describes in the latest issue of Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.

The article also reports on McCaffrey's test of GPT's effectiveness. Its results: People trained in GPT solved eight problems 67 percent more often than those who weren't trained, and the first group solved them more than 8 times out of 10.

Here's how GPT works: "For each object in your problem, you break it into parts and ask two questions," explains McCaffrey, who is now a post-doctoral fellow in UMass's engineering department.

"1. Can it be broken down further? and 2. -- this is the one that's been overlooked -- Does my description of the part imply a use?" So you're given two steel rings and told to make a figure-8 out of them. Your tools? A candle and a match. Melted wax is sticky, but the wax isn't strong enough to hold the rings together. What about the other part of the candle? The wick. The word implies a use: Wicks are set afire to give light. "That tends to hinder people's ability to think of alternative uses for this part," says McCaffrey. Think of the wick more generically as a piece of string and the string as strands of cotton and you're liberated. Now you can remove the wick and tie the two rings together. Or, if you like, shred the string and make a wig for your hamster.

McCaffrey has drawn his insights by analyzing 1,001 historically innovative inventions. In every one, he found, the innovator discovered an obscure feature or an obscure function. McCaffrey cites a recent invention to solve a modern problem. "In this very poor section of the Philippines, people living in shanties were using electric lights inside while it was sunny outside," he says. How to save money on electricity? "Take a 2-liter Coke bottle, stick it through a hole in the roof, fill it with water. The water reflects the light around the inside the house." A simple idea, using an overlooked feature of water: "It refracts light 360 degrees."

GPT is one of a "palette" of techniques McCaffrey is developing into what he calls "innovation assistance software," which itself can be put to novel uses. His undergraduate student, a comedy writer, is applying the technique to build obscure situations that can make people laugh.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Association for Psychological Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. McCaffrey et al. Innovation Relies on the Obscure: A Key to Overcoming the Classic Problem of Functional Fixedness. Psychological Science, 2012

Cite This Page:

Association for Psychological Science. "Stumped by a problem? This technique unsticks you." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 March 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120307112749.htm>.
Association for Psychological Science. (2012, March 7). Stumped by a problem? This technique unsticks you. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 3, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120307112749.htm
Association for Psychological Science. "Stumped by a problem? This technique unsticks you." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120307112749.htm (accessed September 3, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Can You Train Your Brain To Eat Healthy?

Can You Train Your Brain To Eat Healthy?

Newsy (Sep. 1, 2014) New research says if you condition yourself to eat healthy foods, eventually you'll crave them instead of junk food. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Coffee Then Napping: The (New) Key To Alertness

Coffee Then Napping: The (New) Key To Alertness

Newsy (Aug. 30, 2014) Researchers say having a cup of coffee then taking a nap is more effective than a nap or coffee alone. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Young Entrepreneurs Get $100,000, If They Quit School

Young Entrepreneurs Get $100,000, If They Quit School

AFP (Aug. 29, 2014) Twenty college-age students are getting 100,000 dollars from a Silicon Valley leader and a chance to live in San Francisco in order to work on the start-up project of their dreams, but they have to quit school first. Duration: 02:20 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Baby Babbling Might Lead To Faster Language Development

Baby Babbling Might Lead To Faster Language Development

Newsy (Aug. 29, 2014) A new study suggests babies develop language skills more quickly if their parents imitate the babies' sounds and expressions and talk to them often. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins