How to Improvise & Create on the fly like MacGyver

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Have you watched TV shows where geniuses quickly hack their way to build a prototype of a fancy piece of machinery from scrap? Or combine unusual objects and disassemble anything and everything to create novel objects? Read the following conversation. Have you heard anything like this in movies?

If you are familiar with Angus MacGyver, you’ll know what I’m talking about. There is a well-established pattern of thinking that leads to such creative improvisation and problem-solving.

Do you remember the kid from Home Alone who booby-trapped the house with house-hold items? Macaulay Culkin (Kevin in the movie) demonstrates this ability too, in a very strategic, believable way.

What we are looking at is true creativity and improvisation. Now, the question is whether this can be done in real life or it’s just a writer’s vision to show what people are capable of. From a psychological point of view, such creative improvisation is learnable, but it comes from skills around concepts such as object pre-utilization and functional fixedness.

A Cup’s higher purpose

Here is a barista pouring milk in an ordinary cup.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto[1] from Pexels[2]

Without much thinking, people fall for functional fixedness[3]. It’s a set way to think about the use of objects. Usually, people think of objects as things with a single function. Earphones are for listening to music. But someone who has no functional fixedness would also think of earphones as spare plastic, extra wire, a thread, a source of extra cushion, etc. A cup is something to pour liquid in, but it is also a component of an amazing innovation (we’ll find out soon). Each object, typically, has a standard function. Thinking beyond that function makes people creative.

Object Pre-utilization[4] is another related concept which describes how objects are typically already in use for a single function at any given time. If they aren’t pre-utilized, we have a functionally fixed way of looking at those un-utilized objects. If a pot has soil in it, the pot is pre-utilized for being a plant’s home. If a small table in the house is used to keep something specific like phones, chargers, and keys, the table is pre-utilized as a daily-important-item-station.

Functional fixedness and pre-utilization are patterns of thinking that affect improvisation and creative problem-solving. These patterns are influenced by our experiences, an object’s context, our environment, and past learning. In short, we can be biased to notice specific pre-utilizations and biased to assume specific functionally fixed roles for an object.

Now, let’s come back to the cup we looked at.

Here is an ordinary cup….. when you don’t have functional fixedness and want to solve problems.

The cup is neither pre-utilized for what it typically is, nor is the way the cup used functionally fixed. The cup has a new pre-utilization and a new role which adds one new function. If you create dozens of temporary new pre-utilizations after repeatedly breaking functional fixedness, you can be very creative in solving many problems.

From functional fixedness to functional flexibility

Those people in movies think beyond the function of the object. They create new functions for an object. They disregard functional fixedness and create functional flexibility. Functional flexibility – the ability to use an object flexibly for reasons beyond its original purpose – is at the heart of creative problem-solving. Objects aren’t jigsaw puzzle pieces. They are like cooking dough. They only appear like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

To have creativity on the fly, overcome object pre-utilization and functional fixedness to develop a sense of "functional flexibility" Share on X

To overcome functional fixedness and see beyond pre-utilization, you need to think of objects in an abstract and detailed way at the same time. Forget the original purpose of an object. See how it can be used. See if it can be combined with other things to create a new function. Think about breaking an object to serve a new function. Remove an object from its context and environment to gain a new perspective. Doing so will create a widely accessible network of ideas in the brain/mind. The keyword is accessible. Pre-utilization and functional fixedness block access.

How to get creative and improvise by going beyond pre-utilization and functional-fixedness

Overcome pre-utilization

Objects are utilized a certain way and your experience with how they are used can limit your ability to improvise and create. Slowly starting seeing objects outside their pre-utilized case. A cup is pre-utilized as a liquid holder. When you see a cup filled with water, it is a container. If you see it for what it is, it can be anything you want. Notice the structure of the object to see how it can fit elsewhere. Pre-utilized objects are limited to a few functions. Remove the existing function of the object to over pre-utilization. This will open your mind to use objects in novel ways. You can practice ways to use day-to-day objects in new ways deliberately. Even if your use-case is just slightly different from the pre-utilization, it is a start. Do this as many times as you can till your thinking patterns change. Be open-minded and commit to trial and error.

Overcome functional fixedness

Not all objects are always pre-utilized for doing something. For example, not all cups are always filled with a liquid. Some objects are just designed to serve one function even though they are found randomly and that design can block how you see the object.

Firstly, tell yourself that objects around you have more functions; as a rule of thumb. Secondly, think about the object in multiple “construal levels.” A construal level is the depth at which you process a concept. A mobile phone is a communication device (high construal) or it is a black One Plus 5T (low construal). High construals are abstract and represent the essence of an object. Low construals are concrete and describe the details of an object. I highly recommend reading this to understand construal levels. Finally, mentally define a function. This is the goal or purpose you assign to any object in your surrounding. It doesn’t matter if it makes immediate sense. Define the goal (function) and think about objects to reach that goal. It helps to define interim goals too.

Counter the Einstellung effect

If you are an expert at using one type of a solution, you are actually blinding yourself from seeing multiple solutions. In many cases, at least. People tend to choose familiar approaches rather than invent new approaches. The presence of a familiar or rehearsed solution can block the emergence of a new, better solution. That’s called the Einstellung effect. Past experience in solving problems a certain way can block creative solutions simply because past learning is “practiced” and intuitive. Previous approaches are constantly reinforced because of successes in using them. The same happens with objects and functions, pre-utilizations can be considered as successes in day-to-day non-creative problem-solving. Exposure to novel solutions and experience in solving many different problems can counter this effect.

Expand and limit your “resources” 

If you have every tool in the universe, you can probably solve most problems. But in most cases, you will have limited tools. This limitation needs to be acknowledged and used. Prepare yourself to expect imperfect tools. Start thinking of using those imperfect tools to accomplish what you want instead of hoping to find the ideal tool (or make the ideal tool). Every imperfect tool you have around you can create a new function and when you have many such functions, you’ll see new tools and new functions. Slowly building new tools, arrangements, and “hacks” create many new pre-utilizations which creates flexibility in problem-solving.

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Learn what objects are made of

Once you learn what an object really is, or how it is built, you’ll see that it is a bag of resources assembled or fused for a particular function. If you know the mechanics or the materials within an object, and know what those sub-units are, you’ll know that you have way more options to be creative with. Learn that you can break something whole into many smaller significant wholes. You can then reassemble them into a new thing.

Without knowing what the materials and mechanics are, you won’t be good at using them. They’ll be forever pre-utilized and you wouldn’t even know it. So learn about random objects and their inner mechanics or components as much as you can. Familiarize yourself with those. Learn a bit about the DIY culture, some basic engineering, electronics, cooking, etc. Learn a little bit about everything. That way all of the relationships between objects and functions will be in your awareness! This will help you create functional flexibility – the opposite of functional fixedness.

Variety in experiences creates new ways to think about objects and ideas that facilitate creative thinking. Share on X
The role of preutilization and functional fixedness in creative problem solving and decision making

From functional flexibility to creative engineering

There are many ways to take this approach further. And, that depends on the foundation you build that amasses experiences, knowledge, inter-relationships between objects, and variety in problems solved. Apart from learning a little bit about everything and gaining various skills, there is the ability to combine and recombine elements to build increasingly complex objects from scratch. This is the foundation of creative engineering.

You can have a number of accidental “creative” discoveries while trying out different things. That is because things in your environment or representations of ideas can interact with each other and you can notice the good interactions. They can be unexpectedly prompt you to shift mental gears. Accidental improvisation could be a strategy to learn more improvisation, for this exact reason. To really get the most into your improvisation, work on mindfulness because it has a direct relationship with cognitive flexibility. Mindfulness hones attention which helps you notice more things/prompts to think about.

One of the lesser-known theories of creativity called the Chance-configuration theory suggests that scientific creativity[6] comes from interactions between previous discoveries, timing, and accidental “links” that connect knowledge. A lot of creativity could depend on having various skills, ideas, knowledge, or experiences and exposure to randomness. Mainly because that creates an opportunity[7] for more “creative” interactions between smaller parts of skills, ideas, knowledge, or experiences and random things you are exposed to. The smaller parts could configure themselves just by chance in a way you are likely to spot a creative idea. Those unexpected/random interactions are called chance configurations, which wouldn’t occur without variety. This is why a messy room can sometimes inspire creativity – the random items in a mess can give you creative ideas just because they were next to each other or they unexpectedly triggered a thought. A Trial and error approach is one of the easiest ways to stumble upon these chance configurations.

First steps to expose yourself to creativity & improvisation

A fun way to start this journey of impromptu creativity and improvisation is to explore online resources. They would help you familiarize yourself with how people approach problems. Follow Do-It-Yourself channels on Youtube and Instagram. Follow tutorials in WikiHow (some are surprisingly brilliant). Hunt for life hacks and try them out at home. Many of these could fail the first time, but give them a fair chance and explore. Keep a trial and error approach as your primary approach. You never know what random function connects with an unexpected object in your mind and ignites a creative thought.

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