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"The Candle Problem"

What "The Candle Problem" tells us about our ability to think creatively and how incentives affect this skill.

Laura Thrower

on 16 December 2014

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Transcript of "The Candle Problem"

Karl Duncker
In 1945, he created...
...the Candle Problem
He used it...
...to test us
Here's how it works...
The goal is...
Using only the objects you have
Attach the candle to the wall
To light the candle and let it burn until it goes out (without getting wax on the table)
Let's try it...
What's the solution?
Why do we not "see" this solution quickly?
The solution is...
...3 or 4 objects?
Do we have...
We only see the box in the first drawing as a container for the tacks. We don't see the box as part of the solution.
Most people, when they see the candle problem presented as above, can solve the problem 2 to 3 times faster than those who only saw the tacks IN the box. Why?
In 1962, this experiment was updated to test
A large financial incentive was offered...do you think this incentive would
the average speed in which people could solve the candle problems?
"Simple Candle Problem" Average Solution Times :
WITHOUT a financial incentive : 4.99 min

WITH a financial incentive : 3.67 min

In-Box "functional fixedness" Candle Problem Mean Times :
WITHOUT a financial incentive : 7:41 min

WITH a financial incentive : 11:08 min
How could this be? The financial incentive made people slower? It gets worse --
the slowness increases with the incentive
. The higher the monetary reward, the worse the performance! This result has been repeated many times since the original experiment, and also using other types of incentives besides money.

How should we interpret the study's results?

When you have to do something straightforward and simple, like coming to class on time or copying notes from a textbook or overhead...
incentives work
. It's a small effect, but they do work. But for complex tasks, like thinking about information you receive in school or drawing conclusions or thinking about causes and effects...
incentives make that task MORE difficult and less likely to be accurate.
The Simpler Candle Problem...
Discuss: What is an incentive?
In short, external incentives move your focus away from the task at hand, to the incentive or "reward".
Discussion Questions:
Do you consider grades in school an "incentive"?
What types of "simple" tasks are you asked to perform while in school?
What problems can arise from asking students to "think critically", while also rewarding them with external incentives like grades, candy, or "gold stars"?
Full transcript