Technology, Culture, & Emotional Intelligence

The Einstellung Effect: When Experience Backfires

What a few jars of water, a $7,000 mistake, and the Columbia shuttle disaster can teach us about the danger of leaning on experience.

The Einstellung Effect: When Experience Backfires
Photo by Chad Stembridge / Unsplash

In 1942, two scientists, Abraham and Edith Luchins, published the findings of an experiment conducted with jars of water. In the experiment, participants were given nine problems utilizing multiple sized jars of water and asked to combine them together to achieve an outcome. The results of the experiment revealed a remarkable truth about the way human beings solve problems.

You can take this same test in the table below if you would like. Make sure to do each one in order without looking ahead to the next problem.

The goal of the experiment was to discover how previous knowledge and experience effected the way participants of the experiment would apply themselves to their next problem. The Luchins believed that if participants were to get used to a specific way of solving a problem, they would continue to rely on that method even if a better or more simple method was available. To test their hypothesis, the scientists designed the experiment to require the exact same strategy to solve problems two through six. Then, for problems 7-8 as you can see above, it was possible to use the same strategy, but a much easier method was also possible.

Because participants in the study had found an effective strategy for solving the problem for multiple problems in a row, the majority of participants continued using that strategy for problems seven and eight. The easier and more obvious solution was invisible to them because their minds were already set in the “way things should be done.” The Luchins’ referred to this natural inclination as “persistence of set,” and called this tendency in human nature has since become known as the “Einstellung Effect.”

“Einstellung” is a German word meaning “setting, mindset, or attitude” and it appears in all manner of places today. Einstellung appears when new approaches to productivity are cast off by older workers because their method has always worked for them. It appears when managers refuse to read new resources on managing teams, because they’ve been managing just fine for many years. Most surprisingly of all, it appears in younger people’s habits and attitudes as well.

Students wondering what they should do for a career, how to help a friend facing a deep emotional problem, or even simply asking what to do for their next science project — are all likely to go the same place for an answer: a Google search. Why would they use just one method for three very different problems? It’s the Einstellung Effect. Because asking Google worked for them in the past, they are likely to return to solve their next problem the same way.

Though the Einstellung Effect is often harmless, it can become a dangerous tendency when leaders forget to leverage their skills and experience simply because they think they already have a solution. The problem, of course, with returning thoughtlessly to the same solutions over and over is that eventually, those solutions will fail you. And when they do, if the conditions are right, it could lead to disaster.

The Columbia Disaster

Perhaps the best example of the danger of the Einstellung Effect is an admittedly intense one: the Columbia space shuttle explosion. For years leading up to the Columbia disaster, foam insulation broke off of nearly every shuttle during launch. As the shuttle was lifting into the air, these foam pieces became projectiles that hit the underbelly of the shuttle — causing no damage. It happened so consistently, and with so very little issue, that it was eventually viewed as a normal consequence of the launch process. The solution to the problem of the foam insulation breaking off was to simply no longer view it as a problem.

Eventually, though, it was a problem. The space shuttle Columbia, having been struck by a piece of foam the size of a briefcase, was damaged badly enough that the thermal protection system failed. Without anyone knowing it was coming, the damage caused during the launch led to the shuttle disintegrating upon reentry.

While the Columbia shows us the most disastrous consequences of the Einstellung Effect, the same mental errors can show up in smaller, but still damaging ways for leaders of organizations as well. As the founders of Lean Start-Up explain, “When faced with a problem, we tend to stop ideating as soon as we think we’ve found an answer. But our first ideas are rarely our best ideas. It gets worse when we move forward into development and inevitably experience customer pushback; we would rather explain those issues away (sometimes even blame the customers) than go back to the drawing board.”

Years ago, I experienced the Einstellung Effect first hand. Our company was in need of updated videos for our high school curriculum. I was young and inexperienced, and so I approached the problem with a solution that felt familiar. Let’s make videos with more updated content, and relevant examples. “The students will love it!” — I assured myself. I did almost zero research, and barely spoke to any of our customers about the plan. My confidence and lack of exploration led our team to solve the wrong problem. The goal was to make videos the students wanted to watch, but the problem wasn’t that students didn’t see the videos as relevant to them. The main problem students had with our videos were that they were too long — it was the length, not the content that was causing problems. I didn’t discover this until I brought my new videos — which were now longer than the originals — into the conference room of one of our partner schools. Ill never forget the principal turning around in her chair at minute five of my newly created 17 minute video and saying, “our students will never watch these.” Record scratch. Self-congratulation suddenly halted. Like a lightning bolt, every false assumption I had made was suddenly clear to me: Students didn’t want better videos, they wanted shorter videos. To this day, I call this my $7,000 lesson in the importance of customer research.

How to Keep Experience from Being a Problem

Let we wrap up by giving you a few ways you can keep the Einstellung Effect from transforming your experience into a problem. Several of these may seem basic, but it can be a good checklist when you are implementing a solution to make sure you haven’t missed the forest for the trees.

  1. Always ask your end user what they think. Don’t make the same mistake I did and assume you know what your users think. Bring your solution to the people it’s designed to help and beta test it before investing all your resources in it.
  2. Fall in love with the problem not the solution. If you are like me, you can get really excited about a solution. This is why I’ve built a discipline of always asking: “What problem are we trying to solve for our customer?” It’s the best strategy to make sure you are spending your time on the right things.
  3. As a thought experiment, remove the obvious answer. The next time you are presented with a problem and the solution seems obvious to you, take five minutes and ask: “If I couldn’t solve this problem the way I normally would, what would I do?”
  4. Express yourself in multiple mediums. Sometimes changing the medium of your communication can force you to express your thoughts differently. If you usually send an email to address a need, record a video instead. This can help you get out of your routine.
  5. Explain your solution to a 6-year-old. I love this one. They say that you don’t really understand something until you can explain it to a 6-year-old. Try writing your next solution down with the shortest amount of words and the simplest language.

Victorian John Ruskin once wrote:

"The more I think of it, the more I find this conclusion more impressed upon me—that the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.”

Let us all be leaders who are able to truly see — both the problems we are facing and the people who will benefit from the solutions we propose.


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Jamie Larson