The Einstellung Effect...what was that again?

Over the years of working in informal science and environmental science communication, I’ve taken an interest in learning more about how we decide what to believe.  In forming our beliefs we’re all wired to fall prey to a series of cognitive “traps” which can lead us to false conclusions, one of which is the Einstellung effect…I find it fascinating, but little discussed, so here is a bit more background on exactly what the effect is, and where we can observe its results.

What is the Einstellung Effect?

The Einstellung effect is the tendency to apply a familiar solution or methodology to a problem based on prior experience, even when a better solution may exist. Experience is almost always acknowledged as a helpful trait when confronting a challenge, but in the case of Einstellung, prior experience actually impairs our ability to think creatively and find the most appropriate solution.

Einstellung in Action

The effect has been observed in many contexts, and with varying degrees of potential consequences. 

Studies show that chess masters are quite susceptible to it, while grand masters are better at resisting its effects.  Stop and think about that: while “experts”, chess masters, are held in the sway of relying on familiar solutions, their betters, grand masters, are not. Guess that’s why they are grand masters.

This example proves that overcoming the Einstellung effect is no minor accomplishment: in fact, it directly correlates with getting a promotion!

Doctors, too, are well recognized for their susceptibility, and in a way that might make some sense. They are called on to quickly diagnose a host of ailments, most to which fall into a prescribed course of treatment. This is what Daniel Kanneman would describe as system 1 thinking, characterized as fast, automatic, frequent, emotional and often subconscious thought processes. Most of the time this is exactly what is called for. If we labored logically over every diagnosis or decision we would never get anywhere. But sometimes new ways of thinking are exactly what is needed, and that’s both the risk and the challenge. 

How often have we heard about the misdiagnosis leading to a disastrous outcome?

On a much larger scale, the Einstellung effect is often pointed to in military history, where successive wars are fought using previous strategies and tactics, to often-predictable results . . . you know the stories.  Revolutionary war minutemen firing from behind rocks and trees to defeat regimented rows of British soldiers.  America going down to ignominious defeat in Southeast Asia on the back of brute force WWII weapons and tactics.  Most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan, where fundamental failures to understand the nature of conflict resulted in strategies that led to tragic but arguably inevitable results.

Easy to point out in hindsight, but darn we seem to get caught in these traps over and again — and note it is often the “experts” that get us there (see chess above!).

The Einstellung Effect Avoided (...in tremendous fashion)

In 2011 the city of Troy Michigan was faced with a fiscal crisis that threatened to close the city’s libraries.  A last minute measure was put on the ballot to raise taxes by 0.7%, but it was immediately and vigorously opposed by an organized anti-tax group. With the usually low turnout for elections such as this, it was headed for certain defeat. Routine solutions to the problem of getting voters to the ballot box (such as advertisements or door-to-door solicitation) simply weren’t going to be enough.

But shortly before the election in August, lawn signs started sprouting up around town reading “Vote to close Troy library Aug. 2nd, Book burning party Aug 5th.” The signs were put up by a group called Safeguarding American Families, which then also started a Facebook and Twitter campaign calling for the no vote and the book burning.  Book burning T-shirts and mugs were put on sale.

The media picked up on the story, first locally, then nationally and internationally.  Suddenly the citizens of Troy were paying very close attention. And even though the campaign was revealed to be a hoax before the election (perpetuated by some geniuses at the Leo Burnett Ad agency), turnout increased 342% and the measure passed easily.

The Troy library saga teaches us a valuable lesson about the Einstellung effect: by looking beyond familiar strategies to something truly outside the box, we can achieve what’s believed to be impossible.

So, what do we do to counteract the Einstellung effect on our own work?   More on that next time.