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Do You Fall Prey to the Einstellung Effect in Problem Solving?

Tammy Lenski’s Conflict Zen Blog

The Einstellung effect is a type of cognitive trap that prevents us from seeing better solutions to problems we want to solve and conflicts we want to resolve. Here’s how it traps us and ways to mitigate its effects.

place three empty water pitchers in front of you. Pitcher A holds 21 units of water, Pitcher B holds 127 units, and Pitcher C holds 3 units. I ask you to measure 100 units of water using just the three pitchers. How do you do it?

You’re smart and so you fill up Pitcher B to get 127 units of water. Then you pour enough from Pitcher B to fill Pitcher A once and Pitcher C twice. Pitcher B (127 units) minus Pitcher A (21 units) minus Pitcher C twice (3 x 2 = 6 units) = 100 units left in Pitcher B. That wasn’t hard at all, you say.

Next, I give you three different water pitchers, this time with capacities of 15, 39, and 3 units. I ask you to measure 18 units of water using these pitchers.

No problem! you say. Chances are, you grab Pitcher B, fill it up with its 39 units of water, then pour out enough to fill Pitcher A once and Pitcher C twice. Ta da! you proclaim.

You smarty pants.


Wouldn’t it have been easier just to fill Pitchers A and C (15 + 3 = 18)? Yes, it would have. So why did many of you reading this miss the alternate and easier solution? It’s much simpler than the first one, after all.

The Einstellung effect

The Einstellung effect blinded you to alternate and “better” solutions. I primed you with the first round, shaping the way your mind approached the problem. By doing so, I predisposed you to solving a similar problem in the same manner.

The Einstellung effect is a cognitive trap, a tendency to think in a certain way that leads inadvertently to less-than-optimal solutions or judgments. Cognitive traps can be the result of our natural desire to simplify the way we process information, since such simplification saves mental energy for use on harder tasks (our minds are cognitive misers, using shortcuts to save cognitive power in case we really need it for something else).

From water jug fillers to chess masters to doctors, the Einstellung effect has been named the culprit behind our failure to find more optimal and/or simpler solutions to problems we face. When we see features of a problem that remind us of similar problems we’ve solved in the past, the first solutions that come to mind tend to go along similar lines to the past problems solved. Those first ideas get in the way, in effect, of finding better solutions.

And it happens whether we’re novices or masters in our fields of expertise.

The Einstellung effect and conflict resolution

Why does knowing about the Einstellung effect matter for conflict resolution? Because one of the places people get stuck is in the discovery of mutually agreeable solutions. When it comes to generating possibilities and solutions, the Einstellung effect can make a hard task harder. Anything we can do to generate more viable options and possibilities can make the difference between abject frustration and great results.

And if you’re a mediator or mediating manager, there’s fodder here for you, too. If you’re one of those folks who likes to offer lots of advice for solving problems, the Einstellung effect highlights one way you may actually be interfering with the solutions your parties might otherwise pursue.

And if you’re not the advice-giving type and prefer to help them discover their own solutions (I fall into this camp), then awareness of the Einstellung effect reminds you that you need some tricks up your sleeve to help your clients or employees avoid the trap.

Mitigating the Einstellung effect

Here are some ways to attend to and alleviate the Einstellung effect when you’re solving problems:

  • Remind yourself about the effect. As with other cognitive traps, conscious awareness of the effect can help you avoid or free yourself. I’ve got a little game coming in the next article to illustrate this (and I hope you’ll play).
  • Challenge yourself and others to push past the trap. In round 2 of the water jug experiment, the Luchins warned some of the research subjects with the phrase, “Don’t be blind!” This single warning prompted half of the subjects to find the simpler and better solutions. (Now, I would not recommend you tell your nemesis, “Don’t be blind!” when problem-solving together. You get that, right? Use the idea, not the exact words.)
  • Allow incubation time. Our minds can benefit from taking time to ruminate on challenging problems. My cousin, trying to solve a then-unsolved math problem while working on his PhD, was driving his wife to a party when he had a sudden breakthrough. He left his wife on the curb and sped off to his office. There are many famous examples of scientific breakthroughs and discoveries occurring in such moments.
  • Practice boketto. Boketto is the Japanese term for gazing off into space without thinking. It’s more than just sleeping on a problem and giving it some incubation time. It’s the deliberate decision to take a brain break and let your mind wander without agenda.
  • Consciously adopt beginner’s mind. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few,” Suzuki Roshi said so beautifully. It is very freeing to set aside our know-it-allness and try to see a problem through fresh eyes.

Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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