How many times have you struggled to solve a problem only to have come up with a solution that appears obvious after a quick glance?
In a study published in Cognition, researchers observed chess players and tracked their eye movement as they sought a solution. Researchers observed that once the experts found a possible solution, their eyes kept drifting back to it. So even though they were looking for alternate solutions, their eyes were always drawn towards the initial solution. Our experience has a negative effect on our problem-solving ability. The more we solve a problem one way, the more we cling to that way of doing things.
This is called the Einstellung effect.
The Einstellung effect is a phenomenon that occurs when designers are so used to approaching problems in some ways that they overlook better ways. It is a cognitive trap arising from a desire to find familiar features in problems and reuse shortcuts.
Our brain broadly works in the following manner –
- Observation: We observe. Store experiences in our memory.
- Recollection: We review the past experience and try to find out how similar problems were solved in the past. By us or by others whom we have observed.
- Reasoning: Our brain evaluates the pros and cons of various solutions and their implications. It then comes up with a decision.
- Decision: We go with the best
If you observe the above process, you’ll see that our decision-making is highly influenced by our past experiences. Even the pros and cons that we can imagine are based on what we have seen in the past or can derive from those experiences. Experiences also include books you have read, movies you have seen, experiences you have gained by watching others etc.
This implies our problem-solving capability is highly limited.
So how can you avoid the Einstellung effect?
Quick answer – Expand your exposure.
Build a second brain that is always evolving with new experiences. For example, if you have access to a repository filled with patents, you will have access to all the inventive solutions that people around the world have identified for the same problem you are trying to solve.
This will immediately expand your exposure and not limit your decision-making to only your past experience.
The other way is tactical. I have talked about a few tactics before here –
How I fall in love with constraints.
Here is one example where one such tactic has been applied –
When the tripod landing gear failed on a previous Mars mission, the Mars Rover team had to come up with a way to avoid the same mistake. The most important step was to reframe the problem: Instead of asking, “How can we improve the existing landing gear?” they asked, “How can we safely land a rover on a distant planet?” This reframe led to the development of an innovative airbag system that cushioned the rover as it fell to the Martian surface.
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.
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Cover Photo by Matt Ridley on Unsplash