The Einstellung Effect: Why knowledge can make you stupider

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I want you to do a couple of short mental tests with me. It will only take a minute and you will be fascinated by the results.

You will be fascinated by what this teaches you about innovation and creativity.

Let me explain the rules.

You have some water jugs of different sizes which each hold a known maximum amount of water, and I give you a target amount of water to end up with in a target water container. You have an unlimited amount of water to use if you wish.

For example: I give you two water jugs, and you need to end up with 20 litres:

  • Jug A: holds 29 litres
  • Jug B: holds 3 litres

In case you need a hint, the way to solve it is to fill the largest Jug A with its maximum 29 litres, then pour out 3 litres into Jug B three times.

Then you end up with 20 litres in Jug A to pour into the target container.

Ok, now for the actual tests, which all use 3 different jugs.

I’ll show you the first one again. The target is 100 litres:

  • Jug A: 21 litres
  • Jug B: 127 litres
  • Jug C: 3 litres

As before, the most efficient way is to fill up the biggest jar and then gradually subtract the other jars until you reach the required amount.

Here are the challenges for you (if you get this by email, make sure you download pictures to see the image below):

I’ll give you a moment to answer as many as you can. Write down your answers if you like.

If you actually managed to solve most of the problems, well done.

What you might not have realised though is that while the first five questions can all be solved in the way described above, it is not necessarily the most effective way to solve all the challenges.

For example, look again at problem 6.

Your target is 20. While this can be achieved the same way as the others (fill up 49 into Jug B, then pour out 23 into Jug A and twice 3 into Jug C), you could also just have filled up 23 into Jug A and poured out 3 into Jug C just once.

Much simpler.

This is an example of the Einstellung Effect, first coined in the experiment above by Abraham Luchins in 1942.

Einstellung is German for Mindset, and the Einstellung Effect is a cognitive bias whereby once the brain learns something and gets into a habit of seeing it used successfully, it can become hard to stop using this mental process.

In the 1942 experiment, the first 5 problems were used to train participants a study to use the sequence of filling up the largest Jugs and pouring out into the other smaller jugs.

You needed to use all three jugs to get to the target value.

The subsequent problems (6 onwards, there were a total of 10 in the original experiment) could be solved more simply by changing the process.

Yet many participants by this point didn’t even notice this was an option, and continued using the more challenging original method by trying to use all three jugs.

In fact, problem 7 cannot be solved using the original sequence at all (using Jug B: 76 litres).

Many participants got very frustrated by problem 7, saying it was impossible.

Yet when the researcher showed these participants that problem 7 could be solved easily with only two jugs (28 – 3 = 25), some of the participants became annoyed, saying that they themselves were not stupid, but the experiment and the instructions were stupid.

The Einstellung Effect has been seen in numerous other research papers as well.

In one study, when the eyes of chess experts were tracked, they did not seem to see an unexpected chess move when they were expecting a more traditional move.

In another, chess players were given the option to solve a chess challenge with a well known but ineffective method, or a simpler but unexpected method. These experts preferred the known but less effective method.

In a final study using eye-tracking to find anagrams with six-letter words, where participants were given a group of three letters which were part of the solution, and three additional letters. When the first three letters formed a known three-letter word, people were less likely to solve the challenge than when the first three letters did not form a word. It was as if seeing a three letter word fixed their attention onto it, making it harder for them to see the other potential words.

Impact of the Einstellung Effect

The Einstellung Effect helps to explain why it is so hard for experienced people to change the way they think, or see new possibilities.

The knowledge they have previously gained makes it harder to escape that knowledge.

There are strong evolutionary reasons behind why the brain would behave this way. Once the brain has found systems and patterns which work repeatedly, it will strengthen these networks to make them consume even less energy in the future.

This usually saves time, focus and energy when similar challenges are encountered again in the future.

But this means the brain will always prefer to use this knowledge than use more energy trying out new systems again.

This is sometimes also called the “curse of knowledge”.

Not even intelligent, accomplished scientists are immune to this phenomenon.

Learning is easy. Unlearning is hard

This is an especially big problem when it comes to innovation and assessing new, rough creative ideas.

People have a tendency to only think of the current known functions they know of, and struggle to change their thinking when challenged with something new.

It might also be a reason why decision-makers usually react negatively to creative ideas when they first encounter them.

But this why it is especially important to be aware of how your brain tries to shortcut its way through life, using previous experience as much as possible to work on autopilot.

It is only by understanding these biases that we can hope to overcome them, and allow ourselves and our teams to generate their most innovate and creative ideas.