At my Wick’s End

Here’s a test that will really get on your wick. You have a small candle, a box of drawing pins and a book of matches. Your task is to attach the candle to the wall so that it does not drip onto the floor below it. What do you do?

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Answer: Pin the box to the wall and then stand the candle in it. If you thought of pinning the candle to the wall or melting some of the wax and using that to glue it on, nice idea, but it doesn’t work (go ahead, try it). This test is commonly used by psychologists to measure the personality trait of “functional fixedness”.

If, like 75% of us*, you failed to come up with the answer, then you display this trait. When an object has one particular, very common use, we get so fixated with that use that we rarely think of using the object to do something else – even something for which it would be highly suitable. So, in this case, we are so used to thinking of a drawing-pin box as a container for drawing pins, that we are unable to see it as a potential candle-holder.

If you succeeded, then you are a particularly creative and flexible thinker, who often manages to avoid the trap of functional fixedness.

Knowing what you now know, how many solutions can you find to the following problem (supposedly a genuine exam question): “How it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer?”. If you’re reading the online version, leave your answer here– I’ll throw in a copy of my book for the most original.

*For example, Franck and Ramscar (2003) found that only 23% of participants (students at Stanford University, no less) solved a written version of the candle problem almost identical to the one that you were given. Interestingly, Maddux and Galinksy (2009) found that this rises to over 50% when the group studied includes a high percentage of people who had lived in foreign countries. Furthermore, the more time people had spent living abroad, the more likely they were to come up with the solution. On the other hand, spending time just travelling (as opposed to living) abroad was negatively correlated with the likelihood of solving the problem (so much for travel broadening the mind; if anything, it may even narrow it). So it seems that either living abroad boosts creativity, or vice versa (i.e., more creative people are more likely to decide to live abroad).

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine and Guardian Online


Duncker, Karl (1926). “A Qualitative (Experimental and Theoretical) Study of Productive Thinking (Solving of Comprehensible Problems)”. Pedagogical Seminary and journal of genetic psychology (Worcester, Mass.: Clark University) 33: 642–708.

Maier, N. R. F. (1931). Reasoning in humans II. The solution of a problem and its appearance in consciousness. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 12, 181-194.

Clandra, A. (1968). Angels on a pin. The Saturday Review, 21st December, p.60

Frank, M. C., & Ramscar, M. (2003). How do Presentation and Context Influence Representation for Functional Fixedness Tasks?. In Proceedings of the 25th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (p. 1345).

Maddux, W. W., & Galinsky, A. D. (2009). Cultural borders and mental barriers: the relationship between living abroad and creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology96(5), 1047.

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