The Einstellung effect is a cognitive trap that prevents us from seeing better or simpler solutions to problems we’re trying to solve. Here’s how to recognize it and reduce its effect.
I place three empty water pitchers in front of you. Pitcher A holds 21 units of water, Pitcher B holds 127 units, and Pitcher C holds 3 units.
I ask you to measure 100 units of water using just the three pitchers. How do you do it?
You’re smart and so you fill Pitcher B, then pour out enough water to fill Pitcher A once and Pitcher C twice. Pitcher B now has 100 units of water left (127 minus 21 minus 6 = 100).
That wasn’t hard at all, you say.
Next, I give you three different water pitchers, this time with capacities of 15, 39, and 3 units. I ask you to measure 18 units of water using these pitchers.
Chances are, you fill Pitcher B, then pour out enough to fill Pitcher A once and Pitcher C twice.
Ta da! you proclaim. You smarty pants.
Except, um, wouldn’t it have been easier just to fill Pitchers A and C (15 + 3 = 18)? Yes.
So why do most people miss the alternate and easier solution? They miss it because of the Einstellung Effect.
The Einstellung Effect
The Einstellung Effect is a cognitive trap, a tendency to think in a way that leads inadvertently to less-than-optimal solutions or judgments.
From water jug fillers to chess masters to doctors, the Einstellung Effect has been the culprit in failure to find optimal and/or simpler solutions to problems. When we see features of a problem that remind us of similar problems we’ve solved in the past, the first solutions that come to mind tend to follow similar lines to those past solutions. Those first ideas get in the way of finding better solutions because they prime us to think in a certain way.
Cognitive traps like this may be the result of our natural desire to simplify the way we process information, since simplification saves mental energy for use on harder tasks. Our minds are cognitive misers, using shortcuts to save cognitive power in case we really need it for something else.
We can fall prey to the Einstellung Effect whether we’re novices or masters in the problem-solving arena.
Mitigating the Einstellung Effect
There are ways to reduce the Einstellung Effect when you’re solving problems:
- Remind yourself about the effect. As with other cognitive traps, awareness of the effect can free you. When you think you’ve got a solution you like, ask yourself, “Is this the best I/we can do?”
- Push past the trap. In round 2 of the water jug experiment, the original researchers warned some of the research subjects with the phrase, “Don’t be blind!” This single warning prompted half of the subjects to find the simpler solution.
- Allow incubation time. Your mind can benefit from taking time to ruminate on challenging problems. My cousin, trying to solve a then-unsolved math problem while working on his PhD, was driving his partner to a party when he had a sudden breakthrough. He left his partner on the curb and sped off to his office. There are many famous examples of scientific breakthroughs and discoveries occurring in such moments.
- Consciously adopt beginner’s mind. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few,” Suzuki Roshi said so beautifully. It is very freeing to set aside know-it-allness and give yourself permission to view a problem through a greenhorn’s eyes.