Possibility and Probability

A Python programmer with a personality thinking about space exploration

12 August 2005

Overcoming Functional Fixedness

by Nick

Ned wrote a post a while ago talking about “Functional Fixedness” which is when you have it stuck in your mind that a certain object can only be used for a certain purpose. A lot of times this simply isn’t the case and the object could be used for many purposes. In his post he talked about using a coke can and a bar of chocolate to start a fire (check it out here). Today I remembered a good one that someone told me about a while ago. Here’s the scenario: You go to a vending machine and put in a dollar to get a tasty snack. But the machine spits your dollar back out. Its a crisp dollar bill, so you try putting in the machine again, each time it spits it out. You try all the different ways of putting it in there hoping it will work because all you have is that dollar (i.e. you have no change). After several tries it still isn’t working. What do you do? Leave hungry? Or is there a way (legal, and non-violent) to get your snack? Well, most vending machines are next to other vending machines, like a snack machine next to a soda machine. What you can try is to put your dollar bill into the other machine, then hit the refund button. Lots of vending machines will spit out 4 quarters (note that some will just return your dollar in which case you are stuck). You can take those quarters and then use them to buy something from the snack machine! I had never thought about that until someone mentioned it to me one day (after seeing the trouble I was having getting a snack out of the machine). It has worked like a champ almost every time I have tried it. I like to think that this is what MacGyver would do in this situation.