Problems with The Candle Problem

The Candle Problem

The Candle Problem created by Karl Duncker in the year 1945, showcases a study done that placed individuals in room with a box of thumbnails, a candle and a matchbook full of matches, all of which are on a table.  The tested individuals are told that if they can attach the candle securely to the wall and light the candle, without having any wax drip on the table.  The Candle Problem

The test demonstrated that the tested group of individuals were slow to come to the knowledge of taking the tacks out of the box, tacking the box to the wall and placing the lit candle in the box so that the wax does not fall onto the table.


In the year 1969, Gluckberg conducted a similar test. There were two test done and using two different type of test subjects, one that would receive a reward for the speed of completion and one that would be only timed, no reward, for completion.

One of the test was fairly mimicking the same test and variables of that from Duncker.

Another test was with the thumbnails taken out of the box, so what was presented to the tested individuals were, a candle, a box, thumbnails and a matchbook.

The results from this modified test, thumbnails taken out of the box, demonstrated that individuals were much faster in discovering how to attach the candle to the wall and not having the candle drip wax onto the table.

Glucksberg also ran the test with individuals that were only timed and did not receive a reward.

The test results demonstrated that the individuals that were told that they could receive a reward for accomplishing the task in a certain amount of time, accomplished the task at a much slower rate than compared to the group of individuals that were only timed and were not given a reward.

The Issues with the The Candle Problem

The issues with this test and the notion that incentives will aid in the speed and human ingenuity are taken from a standpoint of one self.

Every human does not have their own version of the candle problem.  The candle problem is not domain dependent either.  The candle problem test has a significant pressure factored into it.  If you complete this in a certain time, you will receive an X amount of reward and if you complete the test the fastest you will receive 4X amount of reward (rewards and their amounts are unknown).  This may work for short run tasks, but for a long term notion that this test could work for a one or five year milestone of a company is outrageous.

If money was the motivator for a task that could take 5 minutes or less, the pressure of the money may become a great distraction and for the subjects that conducted only timed tests with no reward, they had no such distraction.

Ones that are timed may not have been shown how long of a duration they were taking, which lessens the anxiety level and removes a great distraction.  Imagine if you had to do the candle problem and in the room with you was a timer, would your anxiety level rise, would you be distracted and look at the timer occasionally, maybe.  This is the distraction that was given to some of the test subjects (if you finish the fastest you get the largest reward).  The test subjects were most likely thinking of the reward incentive moreover the task at hand.

Not only is the money a distraction, it is subjective as well.  From test subject to test subject, one could have been in more need of a monetary reward than another, one could have been poor and another one wealthy.  This could have greatly effected the test and test results.  A test subject that needed money to feed his or her family would have either tried harder or would have been too anxious to produce a valid test result.  Without having test subjects that are fairly equal in regards to socio-economically, the candle problem test was broken from the start.

The Price is Right Effect

A little something that I like to call, The Price is Right Effect

Telling someone that you maybe able to receive a fairly nice reward if you complete the task could jeopardize the test, since the level of anxiety in those test subjects may be much more compared to ones that are not receiving any type of reward.  Imagine if the game show, The Price is Right, was only timed with no reward (first off that would be boring, granted), contestants should be experience less anxiety and less stress, compared to being offered a reward if the test is accomplished.

But if you look at most contestants they are quite anxious, breathing heavily, perspiring and displaying other signs of anxiety.  Being close to receive a reward if the test is accomplished, sometimes a very expensive reward, may hinder the contestant’s skills, since the contestant is distracted with the reward.

Wrongfully Broadcasting to the World

How one can think that this test could relate to high productivity and higher motivation in the workplace is astonishing?  It also does not help when individuals such as, Dan Pink, announce that these type of tests are viable in today’s business and standards.  Dan Pink and other individuals that are proclaiming this test as the golden rule are not taking into consideration the many issues the human’s stress response can generate within individuals, such as lower problem solving abilities and lower creative thinking levels.

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