Can You Solve the Candle Problem?

In today’s class, I showed the wonderful Dan Pink TED talk on motivation (yes, the same Dan Pink who many of you pointed out the other day needs to work on his hand washing).

In part of the video, Dan introduces the candle problem, which is shown in the image above.

The problem was developed by psychologist Karl Duncker in 1945 and it works as follows:

Bring the subjects into a room with a table pushed up against the wall. On the table there is a candle, a box full of tacks, and a book of matches. Their challenge is to affix the lit candle to the wall so that it will not drip wax onto the table below.

Here is the solution:

The problem is with functional fixedness. When people see the box full of tacks, that’s all they originally see. They do not think that the box might have another use, such as a holder for the candle.

In 1962 Sam Glucksberg, a Canadian professor at Princeton repeated this problem but this time he had two groups of people solve the task. To one group he offered a monetary incentive for the fastest time to solve the problem, and the other group he did not. What happened?

The subjects who were offered the incentive, on average, took 3.5 minutes longer to solve the problem than those who weren’t.

Glucksberg concluded that the monetary incentive acted as a sort of mental block, and made it harder for people to think creatively.

Glucksberg then modified the problem as shown below:

This time, the subjects who were offered the incentive performed better than the control group. Dan Pink refers to this as the Candle Problem for Dummies, noting that when the tacks are out of the box, it’s easier to imagine the box being used in a different way.

Pink uses the example to highlight the dangers associated with traditional incentives. Incentives such as “if you do this, then you get that”, work well for well-defined tasks, such as the Candle Problem for Dummies. However, for tasks that require even rudimentary thinking, such carrot and stick incentives don’t work. What is needed is a different way of thinking about motivation.

This is where Pink introduces the idea of intrinsic motivation and highlights the power of autonomy, mastery, and purpose to get the highest level of performance from individuals.

While to me there is nothing new about the power of intrinsic motivators (Frederick Herzberg talked about his two-factor theory of motivation back in the mid-1960s), Pink does a great job of making the concepts easy to understand in an engaging and enjoyable way and using current-day examples to bolster his arguments.

Here is the Dan Pink TED talk in case you are interested; it is about 20 minutes long and has over nine million views…

*images from What Is Motivation


34 thoughts on “Can You Solve the Candle Problem?

  1. I remember the “barrel problem” in college, which very much changed my awareness of the way I tend to think. The task was simply to write down as many uses for a wooden barrel as I could come up with in one minute. Most of us wrote down variations on uses that fit the functional description of a “barrel”, which is to store things. But I also remember someone in the class using the steel hoop as a Hula Hoop, and someone else wanting to use two staves as skis.

    The instructor described my type of thinking as “convergent”… treating the problem in the way of a math problem with one “correct” answer. But for those who “disassembled” the barrel or who found novel or creative uses, she described it as “divergent” thinking. As a student in a hard science, it was pointed out that we had been trained to think in a convergent manner, or to derive a correct solution. But she went on to point out that those who come up with truly groundbreaking ideas have usually applied at least some divergent thought… Archimedes’ “Eureka!”, Kekulé’s dream, or Einstein’s intuition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. that sounds like it was a great exercise, and its message has obviously stuck with you. It seems as if having a bit of both convergent and divergent thinking would be the best of both worlds…

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  2. How strange that having the tacks in a box throws us off so much. It doesn’t say much for our cognitive skills if something like that can throw us off.

    I do find it interesting that adding a monetary element slows down people from solving the problem. I do think that we can put undue pressure on ourselves. It’s like telling yourself to fall asleep and then not being able to do so.

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    1. I guess we get so used to thinking that certain items just have a specific use.

      And as for the money, it was a clever study showing that sometimes incentives work, it just depends on the nature of the problem.

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  3. Okay, I am now officially a member of the Dan pink fan club! His talk was done so well and delivered with energy and enthusiasm. He is such a good speaker. Guess law school came in handy anyway. Great post to share, Jim! Wish I could make every manager in America watch it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m with you, Brad. He is a phenomenal speaker, and I think it catapulted him to the next level. I think he was already a successful author, but this brought him into the big time…

      And at least 100 students per year are going out into the business world having seen this video 🙂

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  4. This is very interesting, Jim. I know that I’ve never been motivated by money but rather by other things. Corporates find it very hard to get their minds around that, they only really have money in their repertoire of incentives up until recently. Now part time work and softer incentives exist, but do they work – NO! because the corporate mind set hasn’t shifted.


  5. And I was thinking I’d just tack the candle to the part of the wall that’s away from the table. That would have been one messed up candle after I finished with it. By by god, I would have demanded payment for my services.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be happy to (I think most teachers will probably say that grading is the least favorite part of their job), but I think most students like to know how they are doing, and employers, for better or worse, like to see grades as part of the initial screening process.


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