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Posted by Mark Tuckwood 1 February 2017 Workshops

The Einstellung effect is critical for understanding innovation, decision making and problem solving, and yet it is rarely discussed by mainstream business and innovation commentators. In a demanding global marketplace that shows no sign of slowing, any insight that can give you a competitive edge must be taken seriously and applied to your innovation strategy.


The Einstellung effect is most succinctly defined as a mind-set in which a person seeking to solve a problem does so in a predisposed manner. This mind-set causes individuals to look at their previous experiences of problem solving, and to apply these same methods to solving the problem at hand. At the heart of the Einstellung effect is the notion that, even though this prior method may not be the most effective, efficient or indeed useful method to tackle the current challenge, the very presence of this prior idea and its success inhibits the individual from finding a better, easier or simpler solution.


Research into the psychology of decision making has shown the Einstellung effect to be a visible and oft repeated element of problem solving. In their research entitled ‘Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones: The Mechanism of the Pernicious Einstellung (set) Effect’, academics from the University of Oxford and Brunel University London studied the logic and movements of chess players. They found that despite the players’ conscious decision to seek a better solution to a problem (having already found a solution), their involuntary eye movements demonstrated that they frequently referred back to the previous solution they had already thought of.

The academics summed up the importance of their findings for real world problems thus:

‘familiar aspects of a problem […] control the subsequent direction of attention, [which] may contribute to a wide range of biases both in everyday and expert thought - from confirmation bias in hypothesis testing to the tendency of scientists to ignore results that do not fit their favoured theories.’ 


 That this presents a problem for innovators should be immediately obvious. Given the emphasis placed upon the ability to create new ideas, tackle challenges with originality and address specific needs in innovation, the notion that human capacity to generate novel solutions is fundamentally flawed is at best worrying, at worst catastrophic. 

As Campaign Live contributor Kerrie Finch commented, it is true that ‘ideas don’t come out of nowhere, and even the boldest entrepreneur seeks influence from the outside.’ Yet, while ‘new learnings are crucial to those "eureka moments", stick[ing] to what we know [causes] the proverbial Einstellung effect [to] kick in.’ For innovators to continue to push boundaries and avoid oft repeated inefficiencies or mistakes, knowledge of and a strategy to tackle the Einstellung effect is important.

Tammy Lenski, an influential US speaker on conflict resolution and mediation, and author of The Conflict Pivot, argued in her blog on the Einstellung effect that there are a number of ways that the effect can be mitigated. 

1) Be conscious of your limits

Knowing that there is in fact an Einstellung effect which can impact on your capacity for original thinking is half of the battle, as being aware of the cognitive trap which catches out so many people can help you to actively seek other solutions when problem solving. 

2) Allow incubation time

Lenski suggests that ‘our minds can benefit from taking time to ruminate on challenging problems.’ Often the best solutions come to our mind unexpectedly, or in a moment of unexpected lucidity that can spring from idleness, daydreaming, or even as you drift off to sleep. Allowing yourself this space and time to think can work wonders for finding optimal solutions. As Arianna Huffington’s mother once famously told her: “Darling, let it marinate.”

3) Become a beginner

Although being a beginner is in the far distant past for many at the peak of their careers or basking in their hard-earned ‘expert status’, Lenski argues that being a beginner has its advantages for tackling the Einstellung effect. Rather than viewing returning to novice level as a form of regression, remembering Suzuki Roshi’s idea (the founding father of the U.S.A’s obsession with Zen Buddhism) that ‘in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities’ is sound advice.  

By keeping these practical tips in mind, it is possible to lessen the effects of Einstellung and make a conscious effort to avoid repetition of previous solutions that may be stunting your capacity to innovate further. For more information on problem solving and idea selection, check out our pick and mix list of workshops here to see how think could help.

As global innovation specialists we aim to help and encourage people and organizations to become more nimble, boosting their ability to generate ideas. We bring pace and focus to your innovation initiatives using our unique innovation techniques, which are constantly being developed by our professional licensees. If you’re interested in becoming a licensee for the think team, contact us here.

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