How Your Own Brain Could Be Your Worst Survival Enemy

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functional fixedness, mental preparedness, what is functional fixedness

How many ways can you think of to use a paper clip?

If you can think of just 2 or 3, your brain may be functionally fixed.

What is functional fixedness?

Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits a person’s concept of how an object might be used. They’re unable to think creatively of how to use a given object, like a paper clip. Functional fixedness also limits the solutions you might think of to a given problem. You may have heard, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s functional fixedness.

In survival scenarios, one of the most important abilities is being able to swiftly adapt to a new reality and the ability to consider multiple solutions, multiple ways to utilize the materials and supplies at hand, and not freeze if your resources are limited or you find yourself in a, particularly difficult situation.

The time I wasn’t functionally fixed

This past summer I found myself in a quandary. I had flown from Houston to Toronto on a stand-by ticket, and my flights went smoothly until I reached the final leg of my trip — Chicago to Houston. A storm was rolling in and United Airlines had started canceling flights. I was on the stand-by list for my flight home, but one after another, passengers with paid tickets began showing up to claim a seat, and my name slid further and further down the standby list.

I was stuck in Chicago.

My brain immediately went into high gear. I had a small carry-on suitcase with me, so I knew I could spend the night there in the airport or get to a nearby hotel. With extra clothes and my toiletries, I had everything I needed to stay comfortable. But spending the night on an airport bench wasn’t very appealing, and I had just spent a good deal of money on a conference. Staying overnight at a pricey hotel wasn’t a great option, either.

I just wanted to get home!

So, I started to check United’s employee website, hunting for any way out of the Windy City. Could I catch a flight to Oklahoma City and rent a car to drive home? That might work. How about flying into New Orleans or Kansas City and doing the same? Or maybe rent a car and start driving. I could be home in just 2 days!

One by one I checked every single flight and connection. One took me all the way to San Francisco where I would then turn around and head back to Texas!

There were dozens of options but because flights continued to be canceled, very few flights had seats.

I spent a couple of hours digging through flights, looking at standby lists to see if I had a chance, and visiting United’s customer service desk. It was obvious that I wouldn’t be getting out any time soon, so I settled in and enjoyed a Chicago Italian beef sandwich. Might as well, right?

It finally occurred to me that a flight into Phoenix might work. The standby list was very short, I could fly in, visit my parents there for a quick overnight trip, and then head home in the morning. I finally had a winning plan, and that’s exactly what I did.

Was I affected by functional fixedness?

I kind of impressed myself with the dozens of different flight solutions I came up with, but there may have been other solutions that didn’t occur to me.

If I had been unable to catch a flight out, I would have spent the night in the airport and maybe functional fixedness would have set in. Where would I have slept? How could I have made sure my belongings and I were safe? How could I have stayed comfortable and warm? And what if in the morning, there were still no flights available? Was a second day at the O’Hare Airport inevitable?

One sign that you might be dealing with functional fixedness is the inability to think. You know you have a problem to solve, but your brain isn’t cooperating. You know there has to be a creative solution, something you just can’t think of quite yet — your brain is getting in the way of finding that solution, of coming up with a way out.

When it comes to survival, your brain must work with you, not against you.

So how do you work through a case of functional fixedness? Begin now to challenge yourself to think creatively about solutions. Consider this one cited in the article, “Functional Fixedness as a Cognitive Bias“:

You have two candles, numerous thumbtacks, and a box of matches. Using only these items, try to figure out how to mount the candles to a wall.

Before going to the article and reading a possible solution, think this through yourself. Can you come up with at least 2 different ways to accomplish this task?

A lot of preppers and survival minded people like to play the “What if?” game by challenging themselves to come up with solutions to imaginary scenarios:

What if that red truck crossed over the median and heads toward me?

What if an EMP happens while we’re on a family road trip?

What if I’m stuck in this snow and have to spend the night in my car?

With practice, you’ll be able to come up with multiple solutions to these and many other scenarios. While you’re at it, begin looking at ordinary objects and asking yourself, “How else could I use this?”  This is a good practice with your kids as well. There are other ways to train your brain to respond appropriately in a crisis, and you can read about those here.

I discuss functional fixedness in this video, from a Facebook Live, and provide additional examples along with some chatting about my Russian great-grandparents, meeting my husband, and a few other rabbit trails.

Learn about functional fixedness, exercise your brain, and don’t let it become an obstacle when your survival is at risk.

TIP: Also learn about normalcy bias. Another trick your brain likes to play on you.


functional fixedness, mental preparedness, what is functional fixedness

2 thoughts on “How Your Own Brain Could Be Your Worst Survival Enemy”

  1. Critical thinking. It is no longer encouraged nor taught in today’s educational systems. It is neither encouraged or taught by many parents. I am glad I was raised in the generation of “Question Everything”.

  2. Regarding the matches, candle and thumbtacks…first thing I thought was: are they wooden matches? Are they typical length or long ‘fireplace’ matches? Then I thought about my fingernails…were they cut recently or somewhat ‘longish’? Body parts can be useful tools. Then, depending on where you are and the current weather situation at the time of your emergency (grocery store parking lot, forest path, bedroom, garage, side of the road, wherever), there are myriad items that can be found and repurposed, so I never consider ONLY those three items mentioned–even if I’m locked inside a coffin or a freezer or the trunk of a car. There are ALWAYS more items/tools/ideas to consider for every scenario. Like McGyver, who demonstrated that it doesn’t take a lot of ‘stuff’ it just takes some ingenuity and (hopefully) some research and/or prior life experiences.

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