Can You Solve the Candle Problem?

I encountered this very telling concept regarding human behaviour at a conference about workplace management. As defined by Google, the Candle Problem, or Duncker’s Candle Problem, is “a cognitive performance test, measuring the influence of functional fixedness on a participant’s problem solving capabilities”. This means that the test demonstrates how unaccustomed we are to thinking outside the box.

In an isolated room, the test is executed with a candle, matches, and a box of thumbtacks placed on a table as the only resources. The objective is to attach the lit candle on a corkboard wall above the table in a manner so that no wax will fall on the table. What would you do to achieve this task?

The test has been executed with many people, including students from award-winning graduate schools. The documented results of this test feature many creative attempts to pin the candle to the wall and position it creatively.

The same test was also presented with the thumbtacks just placed on the table and the box now empty. In this case, the solution came a lot quicker. The box is attached to the wall using the thumbtacks and then used as a stand for the candle. This is the ideal solution even in the first case where the box is merely a container for thumbtacks and not recognized as a resource itself.

Another part of the test was to compare the results, within the original test scenario, of two groups: one that was offered a reward for the top fastest people to solve it and the other was offered no reward. Amazingly, the second group managed to find the correct solution a lot faster. This goes to show us that, even though quantifiable rewards are very important to us, they are not the ideal motivator for completing tasks that require more than productivity levels to include creative and critical thinking. The incentives provided fail to engage these qualities in the participants.

This experience reminded me of three key lessons:

  1. I need to habitually take part in activities that foster creativity and thinking outside the box. If I do not develop and use those mindsets, I will lose them. It is scary that the manner in which everything is presented to us can greatly influence our reaction to it. I think I can be better prepared to interpret situations and make better decisions. I will do a post to build on this idea soon.
  2. This experiment can be valuable for leaders on how to best apply the human resources of their organization. Some observation and discussion is important to discover the motivators and skills of different people. Accordingly, the environment can be designed to harness the best level of ideas and productivity. The office design of Google is a classic example of non-monetary benefits within the work environment that is bringing out the best ideas from employees. Personally, I can apply this insight to improve how I work with others to develop them and create win-win situations.
  3. Don’t chase success; pursue excellence and success will follow. – Movie, 3 idiots. This quote says it all and the results of the test prove it. The people who strived to be first to win the prize were worse off than the unrewarded group. In my life too, I see the difference between the success of people who have material or shallow goals and those who pursue the challenges with passion. I want to pursue excellence.



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Matters of Living

I am exploring the world of blogging to find and share inspiration and insight on living life as best as possible.

4 thoughts on “Can You Solve the Candle Problem?”

  1. Hi,
    I find this intriguing. I’m analytical and love solving puzzles. I love your quote too.
    I met you at Roberta’s blog party. Maybe you can check out my blog if you need a blogging tip or two. That’s what I write about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I share your interests. that’s why this study interested me when I learned about it. thanks for the visit and sharing your blog. I am still trying to build my blogging skills so advice is always welcome. any specific tips you have for my blog to be better?

      Liked by 1 person

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