Functional Fixedness

Functional fixedness HeartyPsychFunctional fixedness also called functional fixity or functional embeddedness is a type of cognitive bias, which causes an inability to solve a problem requiring the use of a specific object, the impairment being the result of recent use of an object for a different function, or by recent perception of the object performing a different function.

The phenomenon was first described in 1935 by the German-born US psychologist Karl Duncker, who experimented with five problems, including what he called the box problem in which three small-lighted candles were to be attached to a wooden door at eye level. The subjects were presented with many objects, including a matchbox containing matches, a similar-sized cardboard box containing small candles, and a third similar box containing thumbtacks. The solution was to empty the three boxes, to fix them to the door with thumbtacks, and to stand a lighted candle in each box. While only 43 per cent of Duncker’s subjects solved the box problem in that form, 100 per cent of a control group solved it when presented with the same objects but with the three boxes empty, thus avoiding functional fixedness arising from perceiving the boxes as containers of other objects.

Across all five problems, Duncker found that the functional fixedness of crucial objects reduced the number of solutions by almost a half. Duncker pointed out that the phenomenon applies not only to physical objects or tools, but also to mental objects or concepts. An English translation from Duncker’s classic article in German was published in the journal Psychological Monographs in 1945. Functional fixedness can hamper a person’s ability to solve problems.

Functional fixedness prevents people from finding novel ways of using the objects that are familiar for solving particular problems, for solving other problems that may arise. Children who are five or younger are not fixed, they come up with new ways to use familiar objects during play. As they grow they become functionally fixed as a result of adults correcting them. By practicing creative thinking, functional fixedness can be avoided.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance written on black backgroundWhen a person holds two or more contradictory or inconsistent beliefs, ideas, or values, he or she experiences a mental discomfort. This mental discomfort or psychological stress is described as COGNITIVE DISSONANCE.

A seemingly simple cognitive consistency theory was first introduced by the US psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. The concept is related to the effects inconsistent cognitions i.e. knowledge or belief, has on a person. It is believed that, inconsistent or contradictory beliefs or ideas are very hard to maintain and often cause tension, which ultimately motivates a person to bring change in those beliefs or ideas. If both the beliefs or ideas in the cognition pair are in harmony they are considered consonant, if one of the beliefs in the cognition pair is opposite to the other, they are dissonant; and if they are neither in harmony nor converse of the other, then such beliefs are said to be irrelevant to each other.

A state of tension is created due to dissonance relation which, in turn, leads to three types of dissonance-reducing behaviors:

  • Changing one of the two perceptions or cognitions
  • Decreasing the perceived importance of dissonant cognitions
  • Adding further (justifying) cognitions

This may be better understood by the following example. A classic case of dissonance is a smoker who holds two beliefs, i.e., “I smoke cigarette” and “Cigarette smoking is injurious to health.” These two sets of information are mutually contradictory and will lead to a state to dissonance. Therefore, to reduce this dissonance, the person will chose one of the above-mentioned dissonance-reducing behaviors.

The Halo Effect

sun with halloThe Halo effect was first documented by the US psychologist Frederick Lyman Wells in a study of ratings of the literary merit of authors. The study was published in the Archives of Psychology in 1907. It is a form of cognitive bias in which a person, brand, or thing evaluated to possess one desirable or positive trait is consequently evaluated to possess many other desirable or positive traits. In person perception, it is a generalization from the perception of one prominent attribute to an impression of the personality as a whole, leading to inflated correlations between rated characteristics. In other words when a person or object is perceived to be good in one aspect, we generally perceive him/her to be good in other areas as well. The term is occasionally limited to occasions in which it leads to an overvaluation of the personality as a whole. In simple terms, your general perception of an individual as “He/She is good!” influences your perception of that person’s particular traits (“He/She is intelligent also!”). The term ‘halo error’ was introduced in 1920 by the US psychologist Edward Thorndike.

The Spotlight Effect

woman in spotlightThe Spotlight Effect is a cognitive bias that makes people believe that others notice them more than they actually do. In other words, spotlight phenomenon makes people overestimate the extent to which others notice, observe, or judge them and the extent to which others remember things about them. It is, in some cases, the major reason behind people getting self-conscious in a large gathering and sometimes, becomes the cause of social anxiety. It is found to be more prevalent among teenagers, who spent plenty of time thinking about how others will perceive them. The cause of the spotlight effect is the innate tendency to forget that even though one is the center of one’s own world, he or she is not the center of everyone else’s. The term was coined by Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky. The phenomenon first appeared in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science in 1999.


Woman sitting on the typewriterCryptomnesia refers to a memory bias by which a person recalls a memory but misidentifies it as a new thought. This eerie process causes a forgotten memory to return without being recognized as a memory. The person does not consciously engage in plagiarism but he or she experiences the recollection as if it were a new or his own original idea. In social situations, cryptomnesia often comes up as an annoying idiosyncrasy, but it has far greater relevance for, and may result in serious consequences, in the art world. For instance, an artist or an author may commit plagiarism without even realizing what is happening. According to psychologists, cryptomnesia is a source-monitoring error which happens when we fail to register the source of information. As human brain amasses memories, details are ranked. In this filtering process, the origins of facts often fall secondary to the facts themselves. Cryptomnesia may, in fact, be a byproduct of an otherwise efficient memory system.

The McGurk Effect

The-McGurk-Effect written on black backgroundThe McGurk Effect is a perceptual phenomenon named after Scottish psychologist Harry McGurk, who was also co-author of the first article on the phenomenon, titled “Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices” which was published in Nature journal in 1976. The phenomenon involves an interaction between visual and auditory perception in speech. This occurs when sound of a speech does not match with the shape of the lips that produce that sound, thereby leading to perception of a word that actually has not been spoken at all. The best example would be when the video image of a person saying bay is dubbed with a sound corresponding to the usual pronunciation of the word gay causing the listener to perceive an intermediate word day. The brain, in this case, combines the auditory part of one sound with the visual perception of another sound, which ultimately results in the perception of a sound that was not even uttered. The phenomenon takes place when the listener is in a crowded room or when the speaker is speaking very softly and the former cannot hear the sound that well. The McGurk effect demonstrates that visual channel sends critical information not just to the people who are deaf but also to the listeners who can hear normally.

The Baader–Meinhof Effect or Frequency Illusion

Text written on grey backgroundThe BAADER–MEINHOF EFFECT, also known as frequency illusion, is a cognitive bias and refers to a phenomenon where things or objects that an individual has recently noticed like a name, a word, etc. suddenly seems to appear with strange frequency afterwards. In this phenomenon, the person who has recently paid attention to something obscure or unfamiliar begins to encounter that newly learned information in unanticipated situations. It gives an impression that out of nowhere, the new information is rapidly surrounding him. The reason is that the brain starts noticing the thing, which was once unfamiliar. One interesting thing about this phenomenon is that it is not named after the linguist who did research on it. Rather it is named after a West German militant group which was founded in 1970. However, the militant group has nothing to do with the phenomenon. It was named after the group when a reader of St Paul Pioneer Press first noticed the mention and then randomly heard two references within 24 hours out of nowhere. The phenomenon is a result of two cognitive processes namely selective attention and confirmation bias.

Fregoli Syndrome

Fregoli syndrome is a rare psychological disorder in which the person affected believes that different people around him or her are in fact same but appear different because they are in disguise. It is also called delusional misidentification syndrome where strangers are perceived as familiar people in disguise. It can be said that it is a delusion of over-identification, in contrast to Capgras syndrome, which is a case of under-identification. The disorder was named after an Italian actor, Leopoldo Fregoli, who was famous for his ability to impersonate famous political personalities. It is believed to be caused by serious injury to parietal and temporal regions of the brain or neural pathways.

Jamais Vu

The term JAMAIS VU in psychology is borrowed from the French language and means ‘never seen’ in English. It refers to the phenomenon in which the observer experiences a situation, which is although familiar to him or her, suddenly seems very unfamiliar as if being seen or experienced for the first time. Jamais vu is often described as the opposite of another phenomenon called deja vu, which refers to the feeling of having already experienced what is happening at present. Involving a sense of strangeness, Jamais vu gives the observer an impression of seeing something for the first time in spite of being rationally aware of having seen or been in the situation before. This phenomenon can be easily created by writing or saying a specific word out loud several times. After a few seconds one will feel that the word sounds weird and unfamiliar and that it makes no sense.

The Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect (BFLP)

The concept of BIG-FISH-LITTLE-POND was first observed by Australian educational psychologist Herbert W. Marsh and colleague. The effect was published in an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1984. The findings were substantiated in a survey of 4,000 15-year-olds, carried out in 26 countries by Marsh and associate. The findings were published in the Journal of American Psychologist in 2003.

The big-fish-little-pond effect refers to the propensity of equally able schoolchildren to show lower academic self-esteem when attending a school in which the average ability level of other children is high than when it is low. The phenomenon is believed to be the outcome of social comparison processes, and it means that children who attend academically selective schools have a low level of academic self-esteem as compared to when they attend academically non-selective schools.

According to the theory, children who study in higher-achieving schools compare themselves with their peers and consider themselves less capable, while equally performing students in lower-achieving settings have more confidence. The effect is evident across all subjects, be it math or science or history, and at all levels of education. Students from both low-income and high-income background exhibit it. And countries all around the world see it.

Researchers have observed that when you are a “big fish” (high-achieving student) in a “little pond” (lower-achieving school), you have a more positive academic self-concept. Conversely, when equally talented students (little fish) are in high-achieving environments (big pond), they compare themselves with their peers and conclude that they don’t measure up.

The Cocktail Party Effect

The COCKTAIL PARTY EFFECT is the phenomenon of being able to focus one’s auditory attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out other simultaneous stimuli. Due to this effect an individual can concentrate on a single source of auditory stimuli among the multiple sources of noise. The cocktail party effect was defined by Colin Cherry, a British scientist, in 1953. This effect enables people to converse in noisy settings such as in a cocktail party or a musical concert.

The phenomenon is related to our perception, attention, and consciousness and it indicates that there can be different levels of consciousness which makes it possible for an individual to be more or less aware of sensory inputs even when he/she is not paying attention to them.

This is due to cocktail party effect that when someone hears a word or phrase important to him/her, such as one’s name, it immediately catches his/her attention and shifts the focus even when he or she has not been paying attention to that auditory stimuli.

Imposter Phenomenon or Imposter Syndrome

Imposter phenomenon, also known as imposter syndrome, refers to a subjective experience of phoniness in individuals who think that they are not capable, intelligent, or creative despite evidence of high achievement, and who are highly motivated to achieve but live in perpetual fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds. The sufferer feels that the success is the result of just luck and not because of his/her qualifications or talent. It was first explained in the year 1978 by two US psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzzane A Imes in an article titled ‘The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.’ According to the article, women were more susceptible to the phenomenon. However, recent researches have shown that it affects both men and women equally. In other words it is a pervasive and persistent feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence inspite of often overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The phenomenon affects people who are smart and intelligent and often at the time of some big achievement. As per the International Journal of Behavioral Science, about 70 % of individuals suffer from this phenomenon at some point in their lives.

Pica (Disorder)

Pica is a term that refers to cravings for substances that are largely non-nutritive or rather non-foods, such as hair, paper, ice, glue soil, stones, drywall or paint, sharp objects, metal, glass, chalk, etc. The word pica is derived from the Latin word for the bird magpie that feeds on whatever it encounters.

According to the current estimate of the Handbook of Clinical Child Psychology the prevalence rates of pica range from 4% to 26% among institutionalized populations. Pica is more common among children and pregnant women. People with certain mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder may also develop pica as a coping mechanism. It is usually temporary but is often more severe and long-lasting in people with severe developmental disabilities.

There’s no single cause of this eating disorder. In some cases, it may be related to mental retardation or mental illness, while in others, it may be associated with a deficiency in iron, zinc, or another nutrient resulting from malnutrition. Pica has also been found to be associated with decreased activity of the dopamine system in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that aids relaying the transmission of nerve impulses from one neuron to another. Due to this association, some researchers think that there may be a connection between abnormally low levels of dopamine in the brain and the development of pica. However, no specific underlying biochemical disorders have been identified.

The following four criteria have been posited by Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition that must be met to diagnose a person with pica:

1. Person must persist in eating non-nutritive non-foods for at least one month.

2. This eating must be considered abnormal for the person’s stage of development.

3. Eating these substances cannot be associated with a cultural practice that is considered normal in the social context of that person.

4. For people who currently have a medical condition such as pregnancy or a mental disorder like autism spectrum disorder, the action of eating non-nutritive non-foods should only be considered pica if it is dangerous and requires extra medical investigation or treatment on top of what they are already receiving for their pre-existing condition.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Self-fulfilling prophecy refers to a prediction that becomes true as a consequence of having been made. In other words, the expectancy becomes a cause, so that what is expected comes true because it was expected. A self-fulfilling prophecy can be directed at oneself, another person, a group, or even inanimate objects. The process involves three steps:

1. An individual forms an expectation of a situation or target person

2. That individual’s expectations affect how he or she behaves in the situation or treats the target person

3. The situation or the target person is affected by that individual’s behavior in a way that validates the individual’s initial expectation

Therefore, if a teacher of a class predicts a fall in the students’ grades, then the prediction is likely to bring about a fall in the students’ grades irrespective of any other factors, because students will be more likely to perform poorly in the assessments. Hence, expecting a particular outcome from somebody will bring change in the behavior, and this, in turn, will influence other’s response which will ultimately reinforce the former’s behavior and that’s how self-fulfilling prophecy works.

Diogenes Syndrome or Senile Squalor Syndrome

Diogenes syndrome, also known as senile squalor syndrome, is a behavioral disorder that affects older adults. It is characterized by extreme self-neglect, poor personal hygiene, severe domestic squalor, excessive hoarding of trash, and social withdrawal. It occurs in both men and women.

The syndrome is named after Diogenes, the ancient Greek philosopher who showed ‘contempt for social organization’ and ‘lack of shame.’ People with this syndrome also show a lack of shame. They are often unaware that anything is wrong with the conditions they are living in and remain unconscious of their self-neglecting behavior. They usually live alone and may also displays symptoms of catatonia.

Diogenes syndrome is often linked to mental illnesses, such as dementia, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, and addiction. Research suggests that it is most common among people with average intelligence, who are over 60 years, and are living alone.