Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones: The Mechanism of the Pernicious Einstellung (set) Effect
"The Einstellung (set) effect occurs when the first idea that comes to mind, triggered by familiar features of a problem, prevents a better solution being found. It has been shown to affect both people facing novel problems and experts within their field of expertise. We show that it works by influencing mechanisms that determine what information is attended to."
What this essentially means is that our prior knowledge and expertise in a specific area can actually work against us when facing new problems, especially in regards to new situations that have similarities to ones we have dealt with in the past. Our previous knowledge can essentially blind us to the superior solution because we are stuck thinking about the problem in a very limited way that had worked in the past in a very similar but still different situation.
The researchers experimented with Chess players to show the Einstellung (set) Effect in action. Expert Chess players were presented with the task of achieving a checkmate in the shortest amount of turns possible. The quicker and lesser known solution was 3 turns and the more well-known solution was 5 turns. By and large, even the most experienced players were stuck on the 5-turn solution because that was the one they had the most familiarity with. As a result, all their attention was on the longer solution and it effectively stopped them from considering the superior solution. The researchers took the experiment a step further and asked the players if they were even considering the second superior option while working on the task. The majority claimed that they were. However, by using eye-tracking software during the experiment, they were able to analyze the truth behind these statements. The eye-tracking data showed that the Chess players were not in fact actively attending to the other solution. Their eye movements clearly showed they were primarily paying attention to parts of the Chess board relevant to the longer and more well-known solution. According to the authors:
"We show that the origin of the effect was that players continued to look at the squares related to the first idea they had, even though they reported that they were looking for alternative solutions. The eye movement data suggest a mechanism by which one pattern of thought can prevent others coming to mind."
The players who failed to find the shorter solution were then presented with a Chess problem where the only solution was the 3-turn one and the longer solution was no longer possible. In this scenario, they had no problems finding the new solution, which proved they had the ability to see the shorter solution all along. However, there is an additional detail here. These Chess players who had initially failed the 2-solution problem took longer to solve the new 1-solution problem than players who had never been exposed to the initial 2-solution problem. In essence, their "blindness" from the initial experiment was still negatively affecting them in a new scenario.
The entire study is yet another illustration of how everyone, both experts and novices, are prone to confirmation bias. Once we assess a situation and believe we have found the "correct" path of action to take, alternate solutions are much less likely to be considered. We are fixated on the single solution that we believe is the true one and as a result we fail to account for evidence that can prove us wrong or change our views and align them more with reality. Instead, we primarily welcome evidence that confirms our views and are selective in what information we process.
The authors go on to state that such shortcuts in thinking are not necessarily counterproductive. In fact, such thinking is efficient and makes sense in most situations because it can allow us to save energy and time when trying to solve a problem:
"Cognitive mechanisms that prevent us spending time looking for an alternative solution to a problem when we already have an adequate one are obviously useful.. in complex real world situations people usually prefer to look for solutions that are good enough rather than spending their energy looking for an elusive best that may be out of reach."
However, such thinking obviously has negative consequences as well because it can lead people to
"repeatedly try to solve the problem with the same method even though it has proved unsuccessful Constant failure to find a solution is not enough to change the schema they use."
Such discounting of relevant evidence can also lead to scientists in numerous fields to get fixated on the more familiar solution and fail to assess a problem objectively, which is an important goal of scientific research and thought. Perhaps the most troubling aspect is that even experts with years of experience do not realize they can be prone to such biases.
The takeaway lesson from all this is that no matter how experienced or knowledgeable you think you are, always be open to assessing a problem with fresh eyes and have the humility to admit that you can make mistakes and be prone to biases that cause you to discount important evidence that has the potential to prove you wrong. Making mistakes and changing your views as a result of new information should not be viewed as a negative characteristic. It shows that you are constantly willing to learn and are open to new ideas and solutions, no matter how much of a seasoned veteran you are.