How does the “Einstellung Effect” impact Your Problem Solving?

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


The Einstellung Effect occurs when your brain tends to doggedly stick to a familiar way for solving a problem – at the expense of other possible (and more efficient) ways. The reason we tend to ignore other alternatives is because we often prefer using what is familiar to us. This has been examined by Bilalic and McLeod in the Summer 2017 edition of the Scientific American Mind (see References at the end of the article).

The tendency to simply stick with what is “more comfortable” or “more familiar” often prevents students from performing better in a variety of tasks, especially those that involve learning new concepts (which often may require critical thinking), problem-solving, answering essay questions for assignments, etc. In addition student often prefer to use “familiar” study strategies in their reading, note-taking and exam-preparation, when often there are far more efficient ways of effective learning.

Very intriguing are  Bilalic and McLeod’s finds with respect to the relationship between eye movement and problem solving. The researchers tracked eye movements with an infrared camera to see what parts of a chess board people would be looking at (or ignoring) when solving a (chess) problem. Their results were especially interesting:

The infrared camera revealed that even when the players said they were looking at a faster solution – and indeed believed they were doing so – they did not actually shift their gaze ” (Bilalic & McLeod, 2017, p.31)

Put simply these players were “stuck” looking at the chess board squares in a way in which they were “comfortable” or “familiar” with. But this came at the expense of NOT “looking” at other possible solutions. Bilalic and Mcleod found that the Einstellung Effect resulted in chess players (even experts) “not looking” at the board in a newer and/or different point of view. Instead they would choose the solution most familiar to them (the Einstellung Effect) at the cost of considering or “looking for” more efficient solutions. This type of thinking is common among students as well as professionals in various careers.

Some Examples of the Einstellung Effect among Professionals

The Einstellung Effect can occur not just among students who are problem-solving and/or learning new concepts. This also happens among non-students and professionals such as scientists, jurors and doctors. Let’s look at these one by one …

Scientists: There have been several documented cases of “confirmation bias” by scientists who even as they witness objective data that contradicts their theories will (a) either minimize or ignore this information or (b) rationalize and/or “re-explain” the data so that it “fits” into their original theory (hence: “confirmation bias“). As noted by Bilalic and McLeod:

Any data that do not fit the solution or theory we have already clung to are ignored or discarded.” (2017, p.31)

Jurors: Contrary to what we may believe about juries in general, these may not be as flawless or objective as we would like them to be. As noted by Bilalic and McLeod:

…studies have revealed that jurors begin to decide whether someone is innocent or guilty long before all the evidence has been presented. In turn, their initial impressions of the defendant change how they weigh subsequent evidence and even their memory of evidence they saw before.” (2017, p.33)

Thus the Einstellung Effect in this case (i.e. initial impression(s) of the defendant) can alter a juror’s view of solid facts and evidence. Even more interesting is that the juror can even develop an altered recall of the facts and evidence later during the defendant’s trial. Thus for example if a juror finds some type of commonality with the defendant or finds them favorable in some way, this can cause an Einstellung Effect which can then compromise the juror’s objectivity.

Doctors: Physicians, even experienced ones, can often fall into the Einstellung Effect. There are several cases of doctors missing the correct diagnoses for their patients:

… physician Jerome Groopman noted that in most cases of misdiagnosis, “the doctors didn’t stumble because of their ignorance of clinical facts; rather, they missed diagnoses because they fell into cognitive traps” ” (as discussed and cited by Bilalic and McLeod2017, 31)

An example of this is when a patient sees a new doctor after having been given a diagnosis by his or her former doctor. In a number of cases the new doctor will simply rely on the former doctor’s diagnosis, instead of running his/her own tests to arrive at his/her own diagnosis on the patient. Instead of expending brain power (i.e. critical thinking, investigation, etc.), the new doctor has chosen to follow what is “familiar” and “easier”.

Perhaps the quote by the English scientist, essayist and philosopher, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), in book Novum Organum (published in 1620) provides one of the best descriptions of the Einstellung Effect:

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion … draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects … Men … mark the events where they are fulfilled, but when they fail, though this happens much oftener, neglect and pass them by. But with far more subtlety does this mischief insinuate itself into the philosophy and the sciences, in which the first conclusion colors and brings into conformity with itself all that comes after.”

Overcoming the Einstellung Effect: Tips for Learners

Many students also have a strong tendency towards the Einstellung Effect: they often prefer to use “familiar” study methods that they are comfortable with even if these fail to achieve high marks. To become a successful learner, one can greatly benefit by having an open mind to new ways of learning, especially with note-taking strategies, reading of textbooks and articles, preparing for exams, learning new concepts, etc.

It is also strongly recommended that we learn from our errors in tests, quizzes, assignments in a constructive and objective way. As noted by Bilalic and McLeod:

We must try and learn to accept our errors if we sincerely want to improve our ideas.” (2017, p.33)

Langara College currently offers Student Success support with workshops –all of the handouts and videos for all ther Student Success Workshops (Time Management, Learning & memory, Speed-Reading, Brain & Learning, etc.) can now be accessed with these easy steps:

1] Go the homepage

2] Click “Student Success

3] Click “Counselling” [or click directly here …]

4] When at the Counselling page, point at the “Student Success” – a drop-down down menu then appears with topics such as “Time Management & Procrastination, Expert Learning & Memory”, etc.).

Under each of the topics (i.e. “Expert Learning & Memory”) are the following selections:

  • Handouts
  • Videos
  • Latest Research

Under the Latest research you can click a link which takes you to the D2L or iWeb page.

In addition, Langara College offers a course entitled “Student Success” course –  There are therefore a variety of tools available at Langara College to overcome the Einstellung Effect.


Bilalic, M. & McLeod, P. (2017). Why good thoughts block better ones. Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 26, Number 3, Summer, pp.29-33.

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