Ever struggled for hours to solve a problem… only to have someone walk over and, after a quick glance, point out what you instantly recognize as an obvious solution?
It’s frustrating. It’s embarrassing. It always makes me feel pretty stupid.
Yet it shouldn’t. The issue isn’t necessarily a lack of intelligence. And definitely not effort. The problem isn’t how I’m looking.
In a study published in Cognition, researchers gave expert chess players game problems to solve and then tracked their eye movement as they sought a solution. Once the experts found a possible solution, their eyes kept drifting back to it — even though they claimed to be searching for better options.
That natural tendency is called the Einstellung effect: When the first idea that comes to mind, triggered by familiar features of a problem, prevents a better solution from being found.
If I think a production problem is due to a familiar bottleneck, that’s the solution path I’ll explore. If I think a program flaw is due to a certain block of code — especially if something similar has happened in the past — that’s the solution path I’ll explore.
If I think an underperforming employee is struggling — like many of his peers — due to a lack of motivation, that’s the solution path I’ll explore.
As the researchers write:
But their eye movements showed that they continued to look at features of the problem related to the solution they had already thought of.
The mechanism which allows the first schema activated by familiar aspects of a problem to control the subsequent direction of attention 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 favored theories.
Or in non researcher-speak, when I think I know the answer, my vision tunnels. I’m a hammer, so the problem is surely a nail.
And anything that appears to confirm the problem is a nail makes me not only more likely to follow that path, but to feel good about following that path. In the book Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, Jack and Sara Gorman describe research that suggests we get a rush of dopamine — the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good — when we find information that supports a belief.
So how can you avoid the Einstellung effect?
With the chess masters, the researchers simply removed the possibility of the familiar (yet slower and less effective) solution. When that happened, the players’ gaze immediately shifted to areas of the board crucial to the better solution.
You can do the same. If you’re looking for the best solution, pretend the first answer you came up with isn’t available. Pretend you can’t solve the problem that way. You can’t eliminate that bottleneck. You can’t revise that block of code. You can’t try to motivate a struggling employee.
But maybe you can provide more training. Or assign a mentor. Or create targets more in line with his or her interests. Or shift to a hybrid work schedule.
Taking one solution off the table, at least for the moment, can help you look at difficult problems in entirely new ways.
And discover solutions that, once found, seem obvious.