To become more inventive, new research suggests, we should start thinking about common items in terms of their component parts, decoupling their names from their uses.

When we think of an object—a candle, say—we tend to think of its name, appearance and purpose all at once. We have expectations about how the candle works and what we can do with it. Psychologists call this rigid thinking “functional fixedness.”

Tony McCaffrey, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, developed a two-step “generic parts technique,” which trains people to overcome functional fixedness. First, break down the items at hand into their basic parts, then name each part in a way that does not imply meaning. Using his technique, a candle becomes wax and string. Seeing the wick as a string is key: calling it a “wick” implies that its use is to be lit, but calling it a “string” opens up new possibilities.

Subjects he trained in this technique readily mastered it and solved 67 percent more problems requiring creative insight than subjects who did not learn the technique, according to his study published in March in Psychological Science. For instance, when given metal rings and a candle and asked to connect the rings together, those who named the candle's generic parts realized the wick could be used to tie up the rings. Another problem asked subjects to build a simple circuit board with a terminal, wires and a screwdriver—but the wires were too short. Those who renamed the shaft of the screwdriver a “four-inch length of metal” realized it could be used to bridge the gap and conduct electricity.

McCaffrey has used his generic-parts technique to help engineers solve real-world industrial problems, and he is adapting it into a software program for professionals who need creative insight at work. But he also says the technique has been particularly useful in his everyday life. He noticed the back of a yard chair was a piece of sturdy, curved plastic, and he used it to shovel piles of leaves. He also realized he could use binder clips to secure a leaning sapling to the edge of his gutter. “Ask yourself the question: Does my description of the part imply a use?” McCaffrey explains. Remove “binder” from the description, and the “clip” suddenly seems limitless. [For more on this study and others about creativity, see page 24.]