"When I must find a solution to a problem, I become fixated on the first idea or perspective that comes to mind, to the detriment of other possibilities."
Fixation bias occurs when an idea or perspective captures attention and hinders the search for original alternatives. This bias is studied in the psychology of creativity. It encourages people to quickly produce conventional ideas in the early stages of thinking and to persevere in this often-unsuccessful direction . This phenomenon occurs even when the person is explicitly asked to be creative . The fixation bias also leads to exaggerated attention to the examples we are sometimes exposed to. This bias can lead to the feeling of being ‘stuck’ in one's thought processes, until a "eureka!" moment suddenly leads to an original idea . The expression "thinking outside the box" is often used to characterize the ability to overcome this bias, which appears to be very prevalent in the way we approach problems in our daily life.
Sophie notices that the ground is very icy. Her car is not moving and the wheels spin uselessly on the ice! She moves forward and back, turns the wheels left and right, moves forward and back again. These maneuvers do not work, but she perseveres for a while. Eventually, she asks her neighbor, Akim, for help. Sophie puts her foot on the accelerator, while her neighbor pushes from behind. The solution doesn't work either, but the two persevere for a while. When they are about to give up and call the tow truck, Akim suddenly has an idea! What if the ice was no longer slippery? Sophie goes into the house and comes out with the cat litter. They spread the litter around the wheels—eureka! The car manages to move forward on the now less slippery surface.
Scientists attribute this bias to the architecture of the brain and the way people access their knowledge in memory. A first explanation proposes that solving a problem involves unconscious work that first actives memories and past experiences . The brain will then automatically and unconsciously produce solutions or ideas that are closely associated with the problem. This activation of memories and experiences, which is beyond the person’s control, will continue to propagate in the brain until knowledge further back in memory becomes accessible and allows the generation of more creative ideas. This model explains why conventional ideas are produced quickly and why the frequency of original ideas increases over time, while the rate at which ideas are produced decreases.
Another explanation for the fixation bias proposes that solving a problem or generating innovative solutions involves conscious work that engages executive functions, that is, the mental processes needed to coordinate thoughts and actions to achieve a goal. A growing body of research shows that the fixation bias is less pronounced in people with high intellectual or executive potential. These people produce original solutions faster  and are less affected by exposure to examples of solutions . Overcoming the fixation bias thus involves the ability to restrain spontaneous ideas and adopt thought strategies that are deliberate. These mental processes are time-consuming and energy-intensive for the brain . According to the most recent research, the fixation bias could thus be explained by the interplay between the unconscious and conscious work of the brain.
Fixation bias is prevalent in most areas of life involving problem solving, especially when the context calls for a creative solution. The most damaging consequence of this bias is to prematurely give up looking for solutions. Fixation is seen in everyday life, but it is also a concern for businesses and governments in search of innovative solutions.
Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias
Plan breaks—Several studies show that a break where one is distracted with another activity improves the creativity of solutions and the frequency of "eureka!" moments when they refocus on the problem. .
Persevere—Creative solutions require mental effort, which takes time. .
Avoid examples—Exposure to examples of solutions can sometimes amplify the fixation bias .
Work in groups—A variety of perspectives facilitates creative solutions.
Break down the problem—This can help to see the situation differently .
How is this bias measured?
The most popular measure is to imagine alternative uses for everyday objects, such as shoes . If a person produces ideas from memories and experiences before creative ideas, then that person might be showing a fixation bias. The idea of using a shoe to protect one’s feet is usually produced before original ideas, such as designing a fishing net from shoelaces. Fixation is also measured using problems that involve insight . Imagine a situation where one wishes to hang a candle on the wall. A series of objects is presented: a candle, a pack of matches and a box of thumbtacks. Early solutions tend to use thumbtacks, and perhaps matches, to secure the candle to the wall. Attention is fixed on this solution and its variants, but another solution is more elegant. Some people think of removing the thumbtacks from the box, using it to hold the candle, and securing the box to the wall with the thumbtacks. If the person gives up or perseveres with the initial strategy, then it shows a fixation bias.
This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:
This bias has social or individual repercussions:
This bias is empirically demonstrated:
 Paul R. Christensen, Joy Paul Guilford, & Robert C. Wilson. (1957). Relations of creative responses to working time and instructions. Journal of experimental psychology 53(2): 82-88.
 Fatih Kaya, & Selcuk Acar (2019). The impact of originality instructions on cognitive strategy use in divergent thinking. Thinking Skills and Creativity 33:100581.
 Robert W. Weisberg (2019). Toward an integrated theory of insight in problem solving. Dans Insight and Creativity in Problem Solving. Routledge.
 Sarnoff Mednick. (1962). The associative basis of the creative process. Psychological Review, 69(3): 220–232.
 Roger E. Beaty, & Paul J. Silvia. (2012). Why do ideas get more creative across time? An executive interpretation of the serial order effect in divergent thinking tasks. Psychology of aesthetics, creativity, and the arts 6(4): 309-319.
 Pier-Luc de Chantal, Aleksandra Zielińska, Izabela Lebuda, & Maciej Karwowski. (en evision). How Do Examples Impact Divergent Thinking? The Interplay Between Associative and Executive Processes. Psychology of aesthetics, creativity, and the arts.
 Kenneth J. Gilhooly, Evridiki Fioratou, Susan H. Anthony, & Val Wynn. (2007). Divergent thinking: Strategies and executive involvement in generating novel uses for familiar objects. British Journal of Psychology 98(4) : 611-625.
 Kenneth J. Gilhooly. (2016). Incubation and intuition in creative problem solving. Frontiers in psychology, 7: 1076.
Individual level, Need for cognitive closure
Synonyme : Biais de la fixité fonctionnelle
Pier-Luc de Chantal is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He is a member of the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and director of the CREO lab on cognition and creativity. His work focuses on reasoning, the cognitive determinants of creativity and the impact of technology on cognition and psychological research.
How to cite this entry
De Chantal, P.-L. (2023). Fixation bias, trans. S. D. Renaud. In G. Béghin, E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton, & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 5. Online : www.shortcogs.com
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