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Immunity to functional fixedness in young children

Abstract

In thecandle problem (Duncker, 1945), subjects must attach a candle to a vertical surface, using only a box of tacks and a book of matches. Subjects exhibitfunctional fixedness by failing, or being slow, to make use of one object (the tack box) as a support, rather than as a container, in their solutions. This failure to produce alternate functions is measured against improved performance when the tack box is presented empty rather than full of tacks (i.e., not preutilized as a container). Using an analogous task, we show that functional fixedness can be demonstrated in older children (6- and 7-year-olds); they are significantly slower to use a box as a support when its containment function has been demonstrated than when it has not. However, younger children (5-year-olds) are immune to this effect, showing no advantage when the standard function is not demonstrated. Moreover, their performance under conditions of preutilization is better than that of both older groups. These results are interpreted in terms of children’s developing intuitions about function and the effects of past experience on problem solving.

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Correspondence to Tim P. German.

Additional information

This work was presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Albuquerque, NM, April 1999. We thank Bernadette West and the rest of the staff, the children, and their parents at Broomgrove Primary School, Colchester. Thanks also to Steve Avons, Rick Hanley, Janet Metcalfe, Max Roberts, Steven Smith, Cristina Sorrentino, one anonymous reviewer, and especially Geoff Ward for helpful discussion of the issues raised here and/or comments on a previous version of this manuscript.

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German, T.P., Defeyter, M.A. Immunity to functional fixedness in young children. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 7, 707–712 (2000). https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03213010

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Keywords

  • Young Child
  • Functional Fixedness
  • False Belief Task
  • Insight Problem
  • Conventional Function