Einstellung Effect

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Einstellung [ahyn-stel-luhng] (German: ‘attitude’) is the development of a mechanized state of mind. Often called a ‘problem solving set,’ Einstellung refers to a person’s predisposition to solve a given problem in a specific manner even though better or more appropriate methods of solving the problem exist. The Einstellung effect is the negative effect of previous experience when solving new problems. It has been tested experimentally in many different contexts.

The Einstellung effect occurs when a person is presented with a problem or situation that is similar to problems they have worked through in the past. If the solution (or appropriate behavior) to the problem/situation has been the same in each past experience, the person will likely provide that same response without giving the problem too much thought. This behavior is heuristical (related to mental shortcuts), it is one of the human brain’s ways of finding solutions as efficiently as possible.

The most famous example, which led to American Gestalt psychologist Abraham S. Luchins and his wife Edith coining of the term, is the Luchins’ 1942 water jar experiment, in which subjects were asked to solve a series of water jar problems. After solving many problems which had the same solution, subjects applied that solution to later problems even though a simpler solution existed.

Einstellung literally means ‘setting’ or ‘installation’ as well as a person’s ‘attitude’ in German. Related to ‘einstellung’ is what is referred to as an ‘aufgabe’ (‘task’). The aufgabe is the situation which could potentially invoke the einstellung effect. It is a task which creates a tendency to execute a previously applicable behavior. In the Luchins’ experiment a water jar problem served as the aufgabe, or task.

Another phenomenon similar to Einstellung is ‘functional fixedness,’ an impaired ability to discover a new use for an object, owing to the subject’s previous use of the object in a functionally dissimilar context. It can also be deemed a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used. Duncker also pointed out that the phenomenon occurs not only with physical objects, but also with mental objects or concepts (a point which lends itself nicely to the phenomenon of the Einstellung effect).

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