Image Credit:
Daniele Levis Pelusi


min read


The origin of the phrase, ‘think outside the box’ comes from an experiment conducted in 1945 by a Gestalt psychologist, Karl Duncker. The driving philosophy was that patterns were perceived and intercepted as ‘a whole’ and not as individual or smaller, broken down parts. Now here’s where things get interesting.

The experiment involved test volunteers who were given a box(tray) which contained a candle , some matches and some thumb tacks. The instruction was simple: Find a way to attach the candle to the wall utilising what was given to them. Most subjects tried the trusted ‚ ‘Melted wax as a connector’ method where they used the matches to melt the bottom of the candle slightly and tried sticking it to the wall.

Unfortunately, that didn’t work. Some even tried to pin the candle into the wall, but the candle either broke or the thumb tacks weren’t large enough to go through the candle and out the other side. 

Interestingly, a small number of test subjects placed the candle upright in the box that was given to them and pinned said box to the wall creating a tray/base of sorts for the lit candle. The key inference made here was that most subjects viewed the box and its usage in the way it had been presented to them and not for its functional utility in shape or form. Ironically, the very first test subjects were unable to ‘think outside the box’ even though they technically had to think ‘inside’ this one.

Mila Albrecht | Unsplash

Why functional fixedness is debilitating?

What this experiment tells us (and we observe this enough on the daily) is that we are somehow complacently attached to the old-school, tried and tested way of utility. Be it physical or intellectual; tangible and intangible. This deep-rooted cognitive bias highly limits how we observe, perceive and rationalise our everyday lives. Extending the same principle to consumers, one finds that brands often struggle to choose between radically transforming the way consumers use their offerings out of fear of such biases: What if they don’t get it? What if they don’t understand? We might just lose our safely kept loyalists. This makes for a dangerous cocktail that seems laced with stagnation if you’re able to identify it: The fear of the unknown combined with a rigid and traditional perception of how things should be and are used.

Un-learning, Re-learning & Un-leashing

That’s all great, but how do we work with and through this bias?

The first and most important of all aspects is to address is the openness to un-learning. As individuals in the 21st century, we are able to quickly identify the lack of fluidity in thoughts, feelings and actions in various spectrums of our lives; think political ideologies, conflict situations, interpersonal relationships, attachment to material items, technological services, etc (this list is really endless). We develop opinions and ways-of-thinking/doing things based on our past experiences which in-turn reinforce these ways of thinking/doing even deeper into our sub-consciousness. Cultivating the sense of exhausting every perceivable perspective to the situation at hand is key to unlearning what doesn’t serve us anymore. 

Challenging this familiarity is the next step to re-defining this box of ours. Recognise where we might already be seamlessly slipping into outdated perspectives. Let’s say product X has been in the market for a decade. It launched successfully and is doing a decent job keeping the numbers above bar. The key question to ask here is: Is above bar what we’re aiming for? How can we transform either the product to provide added functionality or how can we radically transform the utility of said product without enhancing it.

The 20th century called. They want their ‘Box’ back.
Victoria Wendish | Unsplash

Now imagine a life where you approached every issue, conflict, creative or strategic problem with child-like innocence. Dare to be that vulnerable. Throw out everything you know and feel about the situation at hand. Re-learn and define the box for yourself.

Reason, Memory, Perception, Will, Imagination & Intuition make for some of the crucial parameters that dictate how we interact with people or objects. These can broadly (truly taking the liberty) be attributed to the left and right hemispheres of the brain. - Reason, memory and will are usually the wall-street looking people going to work at the left hemisphere that loves logic and analysis. (Fun fact: they LOVE boxes and compartments).

- Perception, imagination and intuition seem like the free-thinkers who’d be hanging at an art nouveau cafe in the right hemisphere looking for new and newer ways to break free!

Think inside, outside and all around the ‘Box’. If we were to approach every strategic situation by unlearning and re-learning everything we know about the status quo of these parameters, we would perhaps begin to truly start to unleash the potential to birth something rebelliously creative.

Just the way we like it! :)


Nikita Ashok


Sep 3, 2021

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