Einstellung Effect: When Prior Knowledge Harms Performance

Let’s do a small experiment. Suppose, there are three empty jars on a table. Jar A can hold 14 litres or water. Jar B can hold 163 litres of water, and Jar C can hold 25 litres. The challenge is to measure 99 litres of water using the three jars. How would you go about it?

If you think about it for some time, you can easily see that if you fill Jar B (163 litres) and then pour out enough water to fill Jar A (14 litres), Jar B would have (163 - 14 =) 149 litres of water. Now all you have to do is pour out water from Jar B into Jar C (25 litres) twice. Then Jar B would have (149 - 25 - 25 =) 99 litres of water.

Once you know the calculation, and you understand the logic, it doesn’t seem hard. Now, let’s try another similar problem.

There are three jars on a table. Jar A (15 litres), Jar B (39 litres), and Jar C (3 litres). The challenge is to measure 18 litres of water using these jars. How would you go about it?

Chances are, you’ll fill Jar B (39 litres), then pour out enough to fill Jar A (15 litres) once, and Jar C twice (3 litres). Just like the previous problem.

But, if you try to find another way, you would soon realise that it’s easier to fill Jar A (15 litres) and C (3 litres ) into Jar B to measure 18 litres.

Abraham S. Luchins did this experiment in 1942 and concluded that people usually fail to come up with the easer solution in the second experiment due to The Einstellung Effect.

Einstellung Effect refers to a person’s tendency to solve a given problem in a specific manner even though better or more appropriate methods of solving the problem exist.

It occurs where pre-existing knowledge impedes our ability to reach a better solution. We become unable to consider other solutions when we think we already have one, even though it may not be accurate or optimal. It leaves us cognitively incapable of differentiating previous experience from the current problem. We do solve the problem but we don’t innovate.

During creative problem-solving, prior knowledge and experience can enhance performance by efficiently guiding us towards solutions that worked in the past. However, prior knowledge can also harm performance if the problem requires a novel solution.

Startups often study business strategies and marketing tactics of other companies, and find it incredibly hard to come up with better approaches. They end up copying others, thereby lowering the bar for innovation.

If you start off with a bad idea that kind of works, it becomes excruciatingly hard to come up with a better idea that excels the initial bad idea. Especially, if it’s a tough problem to solve, and there’s time crunch. Because this involves forgetting or unlearning what you already know, and that is no mean feat.

A major repercussion of the Einstellung Effect is when we tend to ignore better solutions because they don’t support our initial mental model or hypothesis.

Another phenomenon similar to Einstellung is Functional Fixedness. Karl Duncker defined functional fixedness as being a “mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.”

It is our impaired ability to discover a new use for an object (say using a banana as an incense stick holder), owing to our previous use of the object in a functionally dissimilar context. It’s a cognitive bias that limits us to use an object only in the way it is traditionally used.

The brain is pattern recognition engine. Rather than looking at each and every problems individually, it creates chunks of similar problems that fit into a pattern. This makes the brain very efficient at what it does.

The Einstellung Effect is the brain’s way of finding an appropriate solution as efficiently as possible. Even though the process of finding the solution is efficient, the solution found might not necessarily be the most efficient.

But there are couple of simple methods you can implement to break the Einstellung Effect.

  1. Interleaving: It’s better to take a break, or sleep on a problem before concluding that your current solution is the best one. The idea is to forget about the problem at hand for some time, and try to do other things so that your mind is completely off it. This forces you to reconsider the solution with a fresh pair of eyes when you revisit it. If you are a painter, or a coder, or a photographer, or a writer, try looking at your best work from a couple of years ago. I’m sure you would wonder why on earth you thought those were your best work back then.
  2. Collaboration: If you don’t have the time to sleep on a problem, better get a fresh pair of eyes to have a look at it. Teamwork often involves getting constant feedback from peers. Team members can help you detect obvious flaws in your solutions or approaches. Getting feedback early on without becoming too attached to an idea can help you break the Einstellung Effect. In collaborative work, you need less ego and more open mind to come up with better solutions.

Cognitive traps like the Einstellung Effect is the result of the brain’s natural desire to simplify the way it processes information. Our brain is a cognitive miser. It uses shortcuts to save cognitive power. Since simplification saves mental energy, our brain optimises for it so that the saved energy can be used on harder tasks, such as when a wild animal pounces on you, or to take a modern example, when a stranger jumps you in a dark alleyway.

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