Candle Problem

By Martin Gilliard

The candle problem is closely related to thinking outside of the box.

The test was created by psychologist Karl Duncker in the 1930’s and was developed to determine how the function of an item biases our thought processes.

A candle

(photo credit: Rickydavid)


The participant is provided with a table placed up against a wall, a candle, and a book of matches and a box of wall tacks (drawing pins / thumb pins). Using these items the participant is then asked to secure the candle to the wall, light it and ensure that none of the wax drops on to the table below.

Of some of the many but failed solutions that people try are tacking the actual candle to the wall, or melting part of the candle to use as a form of adhesive to stick the candle to the wall.

The actual solution is to use the tacks box as a candle holder. The box can be tacked to the wall and then the candle can be placed in the box. The box secures the candle to the wall and prevents the wax from dripping on to the table. 

The solution to this problem requires the participant to think out of the box i.e. to think beyond how we limit an entity due to our knowledge of its purpose.

When this same problem was given to young children they were much more successful at finding the solution to the problem than adults. This is due to children showing few signs of functional fixedness. Adults think in terms of this is a box where a child would think this could be a box. Young children have less experience with the use of various objects.

The lesson we can all take from this is that to be more creative one should try and see the world without preconceptions. Try to think like a child e.g. what other purposes could an object be used for other than the purpose it was originally designed to do. 

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