Stumped by a problem? This technique unsticks you

(Medical Xpress) -- 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.

More information: www.psychologicalscience.org/i… sychological_science

Related Stories

Is there a hidden bias against creativity?

date Nov 18, 2011

CEOs, teachers, and leaders claim they want creative ideas to solve problems. But creative ideas are rejected all the time. A new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the ...

The kids are alright

date May 26, 2011

Children should be seen and not heard... who says? A Philosophy academic at The University of Nottingham is challenging the adage by teaching primary school children to argue properly.

How your brain reacts to mistakes depends on your mindset

date Sep 30, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- “Whether you think you can or think you can't -- you're right,” said Henry Ford. A new study, to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Ps ...

Recommended for you

Homely men who misbehave can't win for losing

date 6 hours ago

Women tolerate an unattractive man up to a point, but beware if he misbehaves. Then they'll easily shun him. So says Jeremy Gibson and Jonathan Gore of the Eastern Kentucky University in the U.S., after finding ...

Challenging students benefit from limit setting

date 6 hours ago

The teacher's interaction style can either foster or slow down the development of math skills among children with challenging temperaments. This was shown in the results of the study "Parents, teachers and children's learning" ...

Are antidepressants more effective than usually assumed?

date 7 hours ago

Many have recently questioned the efficacy of the most common antidepressant medications, the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). The conclusion that these drugs are ineffective is however partly ...

The analogy that builds human thought

date 7 hours ago

When Niels Bohr hypothesised his model of atom with the electrons orbiting the nucleus just like satellites orbit a planet, he was engaging in analogical reasoning. Bohr transferred to atoms the concept of ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.