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Explained: Why HCPs and patients can sometimes get stuck on only one way of treating a disease?

A behavioral science explanation of why HCPs and patients can use Functional Fixedness to make bad treatment decisions.
ImageNewristics Image05 August 2019

What is Functional Fixedness?

While an object can be used in many different ways for many different purposes, Functional Fixedness describes how we tend to see an object as having one fixed capability because of how we have used it in the past. We are often attached to the purposes explicitly outlined when an object first comes to our attention or possession and have trouble thinking of other ways it can be used.  

Functional Fixedness can often impact an individual’s creativity. It can impede problem-solving, affecting people’s ability to innovate and be creative when solving problems or overcoming challenges. In many cases, Functional Fixedness can prevent us from thinking of alternative or out-of-the-box solutions to problems.

In what situations do we use Functional Fixedness?

Have you ever used a piece of paper to prop up a wobbly table or an old shirt as a rag? These illustrate examples of overcoming Functional Fixedness. Sometimes we get stuck in familiar patterns of thinking for a problem leading us to only see the intended use of an object as the only possible use, despite it having other potential functions. A person suffering from Functional Fixedness only sees a shirt as a piece of apparel, when it could be a rag or a chew toy for the dog.


Functional Fixedness occurs in a medical context as well. A person may originally be exposed to aspirin because of one reason, let’s say to reduce their fever. However, aspirin is commonly used off-label to prevent heart attacks and strokes. The patient who was originally exposed to this still associates it with the domain of treating fever and instead opts for a more expensive medication to treat their heart attack and stroke.

How do we fight Functional Fixedness?

Learning to fight Functional Fixedness can open up an entire world of creative possibilities. It can help us explore new opportunities in life, maximize resources, and invite limitless potential into the situation. The very first step to overcoming Functional Fixedness is to become aware of this bias and understand how it may be negatively influencing our decisions. Increasing our awareness enables us to identify situations as ripe with opportunity. A few simple tricks and you will be fighting this heuristic like an old pro!


Take apart the problem
Dissect the problem and look at each component individually. Once you have smaller, manageable chunks, you may see new solutions emerge!


Play the association game
Start making associations, either aloud or on paper. As you get further away from the original problem, you will have novel and inventive approaches to consider.


Switch roles
Take on the role of someone on the receiving end of the problem. This shift in mindset can allow the creative juices to flow.