Problem Solving with Humor – the Candle Problem

the candle problem

The classic candle problem. You walk into a room where you find a table pushed against the back wall with three things on it: a book of matches, a box of tacks, and a candle.

Above the table is a corkboard. Your instructions are to affix the candle to the corkboard in such a way that when you light the candle, no wax will drip onto the table or floor beneath it. You have 10 minutes to complete the problem.

Can you solve it?

Problem Solving the Candle Problem

This a famous scenario known as the Candle Problem that was used in a study understanding the impact humor has on creative problem solving.

As you may have guessed, humor and creativity go together like two Ps in a pod (I’ve never understood that saying, there’s clearly only one ‘p’ in pod…).  But nevertheless, it’s true.

I discovered this through experience, but psychologists figured it out… however psychologists figure stuff out.  Research suggests that humor and creativity go together because, in both, you’re tying things together in a new way, seeing new connections[i]. In fact, humor is highly correlated with both creativity and intelligence[ii].

The link between humor and creativity isn’t new—studies dating back to the 1950s have documented their close relationship. What is new is understanding why the two go together: a dose of humor releases the chemical serotonin in your brain, which improves focus, increases objectivity and improves overall brainpower[iii].

The chemical can be powerful. Studies have shown that simply watching comedy films can improve creative problem solving skills. In one study, students were split into groups. One of the groups watched a humorous film, one watched a neutral film and one watched no film at all. They were then asked to complete a task that involved using problem-solving skills.

The number of subjects who watched the humor film and successfully completed the task was 55% more than the neutral film group and 62% more than the group that watched no film at all[iv]. Said differently, the subjects who watched the humor film were nearly 4x more likely to solve the problem.

Can you guess what the task was? The Candle Problem.

Are you ready to try solving the problem? If you need some comedic inspiration, check out this clip of Steven Wright:

Ready for the answer? See the Candle Problem solution.


  • [i] Laughing All the Way to the Bank by Fabio Sala.  Harvard Business Review, September 2003.
  • [ii] The Relationship of Humor to Intelligence, Creativity, and Intentional and Incidental Learning by William E Hauck. The Journal of Experimental Education, Vol 40, No 4, Summer 1972
  • [iii] A Dash of Humor Ups Performance and Creativity at Work by Robyn McMaster, PhD. Brain Based Biz, Sept 2008
  • [iv] Positive affect facilitates creative problem solving by Alice M Isen, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1987, 52, 112-131
  • [v] An Experimental and Theoretical Study of Productive Thinking by Karl Duncker. MA Thesis, Clark University, 1926


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