Want to be more innovative and creative? Science says to avoid the dreaded Einstellung effect
Have you ever struggled for hours to solve a problem… only to have someone walk up and, after a quick glance, point out what you instantly recognize as an obvious solution?
It’s frustrating. It’s embarassing. It always makes me feel pretty stupid.
Yet it shouldn’t. The problem is not necessarily a lack of intelligence. And certainly no effort. The problem is not how I look.
In a study published in Cognition, the researchers gave expert chess players game problems to solve, then tracked their eye movements as they searched for a solution. Once the experts found a possible solution, their eyes kept coming back to it, even though they claimed to be looking for better options.
This natural tendency is called the Einstellung effect: when the first idea that comes to mind, triggered by familiar characteristics of a problem, prevents finding a better solution.
If I think a production problem is due to a familiar bottleneck, this is the solution path I will explore. If I think a program fault is due to a certain block of code – especially if something similar has happened in the past – this is the solution I’ll explore.
If I think an underperforming employee is struggling – like many of their peers – due to a lack of motivation, this is the path to the solution I will explore.
As the researchers write:
But their eye movements showed that they were still looking at the features of the problem related to the solution they had already thought of.
The mechanism that allows the first schema activated by familiar aspects of a problem to control the subsequent direction of attention can contribute to a wide range of biases in both everyday and expert thinking – from confirmation bias in testing hypothesis to the tendency of scientists to ignore results that do not correspond to their preferred theories.
Or in non-researcher language, when I think I know the answer, my vision narrows. I’m a hammer, so the problem is surely a nail.
And anything that seems to confirm that the problem is a nail makes me not only more likely to go down that path, but also feel good about going down that path. In the book Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save UsJack and Sara Gorman describe research that suggests we get a surge of dopamine — the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good — when we find information that supports a belief.
So how do you avoid the Einstellung effect?
With chess masters, researchers have simply removed the possibility of the familiar (but slower and less efficient) solution. When this happened, players’ gaze immediately shifted to crucial areas of the board for the best solution.
You can do the same. If you are looking for the best solution, pretend that the first answer you found is not available. Imagine that you cannot solve the problem this way. You can’t eliminate this neck. You can’t revise this block of code. You cannot try to motivate a struggling employee.
But maybe you can provide more training. Or assign a mentor. Or create targets more in tune with their interests. Or switch to a hybrid work schedule.
Taking a solution off the table, at least for now, can help you approach difficult problems in an entirely new way.
And discover solutions that, once found, seem obvious.