The Einstellung Effect: Thinking Inside the Box


Thinking outside the box.

A phrase that has been so overused, it’s become the poster child for creative cliches. Most people don’t want to stretch their thinking, they like to stick to what they know. When it comes to problem-solving, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, but instead creates a comfortable realm that we are hesitant to move out of.

As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as free thinkers, human thought, when confronted with a new problem, has a tendency to be rigid. We invest heavily in certain methods and are sometimes inflexible to new ways of thinking. We get stuck in a particular approach, set in our ways. Maybe trying new solutions is implicitly admitting our old solutions were wrong. Who knows, the mind works in strange ways.

Which brings us to the einstellung effect.

The einstellung effect (the word means ‘attitude’ in German) occurs when a person is presented with a problem and to solve it they call on an ‘attitude” or solution that is similar to something that worked on a comparable problem in the past. Think of it as the negative effect of experience when solving new problems. We repeat a known solution, even if it is no longer the best solution. The effect blinds us to exploring new possibilities, as we believe we already know the best solution and don’t bother evaluating new avenues to solve the problem.

The harm of this mindset occurs when the individual overlooks other possible solutions. Often these other solutions are more efficient, with less time and resources having to be spent on solving the problem. While using tried and true problem-solving techniques can be beneficial to future problems, it can sometimes cause us to limit the range of our contemplation. It can place us in a repetitive pattern. Creativity may be sacrificed.

The effect was examined in chess players in an experiment with a situation in which the board was set up for players to see a popular 5-step check mate soluton. The majority of players chose this solution, even though a lesser know 3-step solution was also an option. The players, based on their cognitive bias of previous experiences, failed to see this more effective play. The academic study of the effect is worth reading:  Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones.

For students, the einstellung effect is a natural response to learning something new. While it can be a bit counter-intuitive – as prior knowledge is supposed to help us solve a problem – it’s important to make students aware of the cognitive bias of einstellung. Our teaching has to take it into account.

Three simple ways to help students deal with the einstellung effect are:

1) Take a break when confronted with a problem

2) Redefine the problem to help break a mental jam

3) Get different perspectives from others

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