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General interest items edited by Janice Flahiff

Stumped by a problem? This technique unsticks you

From the 7 March 2012 Science News Daily article

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….

March 12, 2012 - Posted by | Psychology | ,

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