Experience is important, but sometimes it can blind us. In fact, some of the brightest ideas have not come from subject matter experts but from people “outside” the industry who were able to innovate or find solutions where experienced professionals failed.
A study conducted at King’s College London confirms this. After analyzing 230 solutions to complex R&D problems, they found that outsiders tended to come up with better alternatives than professionals, but only when they had a basic understanding of the topic.
In everyday life, experience can also become a hindrance, especially when we continually look to the past for solutions to current problems. Of course, that doesn’t mean experience isn’t important. Many times it is. But when it comes to looking for different, original and creative solutions, it can become the bars that limit our minds through the Einstellung Effect.
What is the Einstellung Effect?
In 1942, the psychologist Abraham Luchins carried out a very interesting experiment in which he asked participants to solve the following problem: how to measure 100 units by transferring water between three empty jars with capacities of 21, 127 and 3 units? They could fill each jar as many times as they wanted, as long as they were always filled to the brim.
The solution? Fill the jar with 127 units, empty part of its content into the jar with 21 units to obtain 106, and finally, fill the jar with 3 units twice to obtain the exact 100 units.
The problem was not very complex, the difficult part came later.
Luchins gave them other problems that could basically be solved by following those three steps. People quickly fixed them, but when Luchins presented them with a problem that could be solved in just two steps, hardly anyone noticed. Most of the participants insisted on using the three-step method that they knew.
And when Luchins posed another problem that could only be solved in two steps, most people gave up and found it unsolvable.
This is how the Einstellung Effect arose, a German word meaning attitude or configuration. In practice, it is a cognitive bias that pushes us to apply known solutions, preventing us from exploring alternative ideas to solve a problem. It is a tendency of the brain to cling to patterns and heuristics that it knows and has proven effective, which prevents it from conceiving better ideas.
Why do we cling to known solutions?
Our brain is a great “energy saver” and a fan of patterns. Therefore, when we face a problem, the first thing it does is search into the arsenal of known solutions for the one that best suits the demands.
That arsenal of solutions is based on our knowledge and experiences. As a general rule, the more knowledge and experience we have, the easier it will be to solve the problem because, at least in theory, we will have a large “storehouse of solutions” to choose from.
That pattern often generates a useful heuristic; that is, when we find an efficient method to solve a problem, it doesn’t make much sense to search for new solutions every time we have a similar problem. This kind of “cognitive shortcut” saves us a lot of mental energy, time and effort. However, in some cases it can become an obstacle.
The weight of old solutions
The Einstellung Effect affects our ability to discover an optimal solution. By clinging to the knowledge and patterns we know, we become unable to consider other solutions simply because we think we already have one, even if it is not ideal.
In the original experiment, it took only five rounds for participants to develop a functional fixation with a solution. Not only did they use it when it was less efficient, but worse still, they quickly gave up when the heuristic proved ineffective. In other words, they refused to look for other alternatives.
Many times this refusal is not conscious, as another experiment carried out with chess players demonstrated. On this occasion, the researchers analyzed the eye movements of the players while they were trying to solve a chess problem. They found that the first idea that came to mind directed their attention towards consistent sources of information and away from inconsistent ones. In other words, it channeled their attention and mental resources in one direction, ignoring the rest.
The worst part is that this bias was unconsciously maintained, even when players believed they were looking for alternative solutions. The researchers found that they ignored the alternatives to the first idea and when the initial solution was not adequate, they became frustrated.
Of course, in some cases the Einstellung Effect can help us solve the problem, but it does not allow us to innovate. In the worst case, it generates a functional rigidity that prevents us from finding the solution because we do not pay attention to the characteristics of the problem or open our minds sufficiently to explore alternative paths.
The Einstellung Effect, therefore, keeps us operating in a limited comfort zone that, although it can be useful in certain circumstances, prevents us from moving forward because it ties us to preconceived ideas, ways of thinking and doing that are dysfunctional or inadequate for the current reality. As a result, our brain sabotages the ability to generate new ideas. This diminishes our ability to adapt and create.
How to overcome the Einstellung Effect?
We are not all equally vulnerable to the Einstellung Effect. A study developed at St Lawrence University, for example, found that people who have a need for structure; that is, those who are very methodical and prefer order and control, tend to show greater functional fixation, especially in stressful conditions. However, we all have the ability to develop a more open and flexible mindset.
1. Check your assumptions
In the experiments, participants were puzzled when they changed problems because they assumed they could use the same solution. That assumption blinded them to the point of preventing them from finding another way to solve the puzzle. In everyday life, when we only see a solution to the problem that afflicts us, it is likely that we are also falling victim to the Einstellung Effect.
To overcome that functional fixation it is better to check the things we are taking for granted. Ask yourself: What previous problem am I identifying the current problem with? How is this problem different from the previous one? Focusing on differences will help you take a different approach and break functional rigidity, encouraging you to be creative instead of rummaging through hackneyed solutions.
2. Interrupt the pattern
If, faced with a problem, you only find a “solution” that does not solve anything or leads you to a dead end, another strategy to stop the Einstellung Effect is to break the rules or the way of doing things. There are many ways to do it.
You can, for example, distract yourself. Thinking about something else will give your conscious mind a break while your unconscious mind goes to work looking for a more original solution. Taking your mind off the problem will break old connections and open your mind to exploring new ideas and connections. With a bit of luck, you may even get an insight.
Another strategy to interrupt this looping thought pattern is to intersperse other activities. It is not about falling into multitasking but about giving yourself a break to reduce frustration and fixation with a solution. “Getting in and out” of a problem can help you see it with different eyes, discover new dimensions of the situation and be more flexible in the search for solutions.
3. Look for ridiculous or crazy ideas
Oddly enough, one strategy to get rid of the Einstellung effect is to let your mind wander, without judging the ideas that come up, even the most ridiculous ones. Thinking about crazy or ridiculous things activates creativity. In fact, don’t forget that a lot of the coolest ideas were initially labeled “crazy.”
When faced with a difficult problem, think of a ridiculous idea, even better if it has nothing to do with your previous experience. Then reflect on how that idea could be a solution. The secret is not to concentrate on solving the problem, but to play with that seemingly absurd solution. This will help you discover other aspects of the problem that you may have overlooked, find new approaches, or try alternative paths.
In general, the greater the psychological distance you assume from a problem, the easier it will be for you to glimpse its most relevant dimensions and find more original solutions. That distance not only brings clarity, it also triggers creativity.
Ali, O. & Ende, J. (2016) Knowledge Distance, Cognitive-Search Processes, and Creativity: The Making of Winning Solutions in Science Contests. Psychological Science; 27(5): 692-699.
Bilalić, M. et. Al. (2010) The Mechanism of the Einstellung (Set) Effect: A Pervasive Source of Cognitive Bias. Current Directions in Psychological Science; 19(2): 111-115.
Wesley, P. & Searleman, A. (1998) Personal need for structure, the Einstellung task, and the effects of stress. Personality and Individual Differences; 24(3): 305-310.
Luchins, A. S. (1942). Mechanization in problem solving: The effect of Einstellung. Psychological Monographs; 54(6): i–95.