Why do our past experiences prevent us from reaching the best possible outcome?


Einstellung Effect

, explained.

What is the Einstellung Effect?

The Einstellung effect describes when we approach a problem with a mindset that worked for us in the past, even if a more efficient solution exists.1 This hinders one’s ability to enhance their creativity and problem-solving skills as they don’t consider other perspectives or options.

“Einstellung” is a German word that translates to “attitude” or “setting.”  The term captures the idea that existing attitudes can become a hindrance when trying to find innovative or alternative solutions to a problem.

Where this bias occurs

The Einstellung effect is a kind of mental hurdle that often sneaks up on us. Picture having a preferred method or solution that feels like second nature. This bias tends to kick in when faced with a new challenge, steering us towards relying on what's familiar rather than exploring different possibilities.2

Now, imagine someone encountering a problem that their usual approach can't effectively solve. Despite the difficulties, they persist with their accustomed method, oblivious to the possibility of a more suitable solution suggested by others. This mental inertia, deeply rooted in our habits, has the potential to limit our capacity to discover better alternatives.

The fascinating part is that this bias originates within our own thought processes. It's akin to having an unquestioned default setting, creating a barrier against considering more effective options. This resistance to change, driven by our comfort with the familiar, can impede our ability to innovate and find optimal solutions.

In essence, the Einstellung effect underscores the critical importance of maintaining an open mind. It encourages us to break free from the confines of habitual thinking and prompts the exploration of alternative approaches. Being flexible in problem-solving not only allows for greater creativity but also leads to better outcomes, steering us away from the constraints imposed by our own pre-established attitudes.

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Individual effects

The Einstellung effect may manifest in individual consequences impacting problem-solving and decision-making. Individuals who are prone to this effect may exhibit inflexibility in problem-solving. They favor familiar approaches even when alternatives could prove to be much more effective. It's like always relying on the same route to work, even if there's construction causing delays. The Einstellung effect might make you resistant to exploring alternative routes, hindering your ability to adapt and find a quicker solution to your commuting challenge. 

A correlation exists between the Einstellung effect and impaired creative thinking ability.3 This causes individuals to be limited in their ability to establish thought patterns. This is similar to always approaching challenges at work with the same mindset. If a new project requires unconventional thinking, the Einstellung effect might make you hesitant to step outside your usual creative process. 

There can also be a sort of confirmation bias that may arise where individuals favor information that aligns with their existing attitudes or methods. 

Consequently, individuals may demonstrate suboptimal decision-making abilities This can be seen when cognitive rigidity causes individuals to overlook effective and efficient solutions.

Systemic effects

Beyond the individual cognitive impact, the Einstellung effect shows certain systemic effects that permeate various facets of decision-making and problem-solving as well.4 

At an organizational level, this effect demonstrates resistance to adopting new methodologies or technologies. The established attitudes and ingrained practices create a sort of reluctance to deviate from the status quo. The effect can manifest in the organization’s decision-making processes. Imagine a company that has traditionally relied on a specific method for product development, even as technology and market trends evolve. Despite facing a need for innovation, the company might persist in using its familiar approach, reluctant to explore new methods or embrace emerging technologies.This hinders organizational adaptability and innovation. 

In team dynamics, the Einstellung effect contributes to groupthink mindset. Teams are essential for collaboration, but they may become excessively committed to initial strategies and ideas, which can cause them to overlook more effective strategies and alternatives. This causes a challenge in breaking away from the conventional approaches. 

Systemic consequences can also be seen in educational and professional environments. Training programs, curriculum design, and decision-making frameworks can instill some cognitive rigidity. Institutions that are influenced by the Einstellung effect may prioritize the established practices and discourage adaptive thinking. 

Addressing these systemic effects requires a shift in organizational culture and educational approaches. Creating environments that value flexibility, diverse perspectives, and a willingness to explore alternative solutions can mitigate the pervasive impact of the Einstellung effect on systemic decision-making processes.

How it affects product

Say you are an experienced web designer accustomed to using a very popular software to create different website layouts. Now one day, you encounter a client that requires very intricate animations and dynamic features that push the boundaries of what your usual software can handle. 

Despite the complexity, you instinctively rely on the software you already know. You attempt to code custom animations and interactions within the known framework. Hours pass, and you face a lot of challenges in achieving the desired effect. However, your fixed mindset only allows you to find solutions within the known tool. 

Unbeknownst to you, a colleague suggests exploring an animation software that specializes in the design that your client is looking for with their intricate web animations. However, influenced by the Einstellung effect, you hesitate to divert from your usual workflow. The project deadline is soon approaching, and you continue to wrestle with your initial software, feeling the intense pressure. 

In this situation, the Einstellung effect becomes evident as the experienced web designer’s familiarity with a popular software inhibits their ability to consider alternative solutions. Despite facing challenges within their usual framework, a fixed mindset prevents them from exploring a more suitable animation software recommended by a colleague. This highlights how pre-existing attitudes can impede creativity and problem-solving, ultimately affecting the efficiency and success of the project.

This bias can limit creativity in product design, making it challenging to explore novel ideas or incorporate cutting-edge features. It may hinder the team from adapting to changing market demands or consumer preferences, potentially leading to less competitive products or failing to meet evolving customer needs. Overcoming the Einstellung effect in product development involves fostering a culture of flexibility, openness to new concepts, and a willingness to embrace innovation to deliver products that stand out in the market.

The Einstellung Effect and AI

In the realm of artificial intelligence (AI), the Einstellung effect plays a crucial role in shaping the trajectory of innovation and problem-solving. AI systems are designed to learn from data, recognize patterns, and make decisions, but the Einstellung effect introduces a unique set of challenges to the development process.

AI models, once trained on specific datasets and architectures, tend to stick to learned patterns and approaches. This is akin to the Einstellung effect, where the AI system becomes “set” in its ways of understanding and interpreting information. For instance, a natural language processing AI trained on formal text might struggle to comprehend informal language or slang due to its pre-existing linguistic framework. The Einstellung effect in AI can hinder adaptability, a crucial aspect for systems that operate in dynamic environments.

To mitigate the Einstellung effect in AI, developers must foster a culture of flexibility and continuous learning. Regularly updating models, incorporating diverse datasets, and experimenting with different architectures can help break free from rigid AI frameworks. Additionally, incorporating feedback loops and mechanisms for the AI to adapt its understanding over time can enhance its overall performance.

As AI continues to evolve, addressing the Einstellung effect becomes pivotal for unlocking the full potential of these systems. Embracing adaptability and flexibility in AI development not only leads to more robust and unbiased models but also ensures that AI technologies remain responsive to the ever-changing landscape of data and user requirements. By acknowledging and actively working against the Einstellung effect, the AI community can pave the way for more intelligent, versatile, and ethical AI applications.

Why it happens 

The Einstellung effect occurs when our existing knowledge or habitual ways of thinking influence our problem-solving approach. When faced with a new problem, instead of considering fresh approaches, your mind tends to default to the familiar, potentially hindering your ability to find more effective solutions. Essentially, past experiences or preconceived notions impact your current problem-solving, sometimes preventing you from discovering better strategies or ideas.

Synaptic plasticity 

Synaptic plasticity is the brain's ability to adapt and change based on experience. Picture it as the connections between brain cells, called synapses, being flexible. When you learn something new or repeat a certain activity, these connections can strengthen or weaken. It's the brain's way of adjusting and fine-tuning its pathways, helping you remember things better or become more skilled at a task over time. In simpler terms, synaptic plasticity is the brain's way of rewiring itself to learn and remember stuff.

The Einstellung effect is a cognitive process that is deeply built into our regular human brain functioning. Repeated experiences and learning allow our brain to be highly resilient in its established neuronal pathways. So, when we are faced with a problem, the brain tends to access those well-established pathways first as they represent known and familiar solutions. This tendency is a product of cognitive efficiency as it requires less effort than creating completely brand-new pathways. 

Problem-solving heuristics

Heuristics are mental shortcuts that help people to quickly assess and respond to various situations. A limitation to this is that people are prone to bias as they tend to rely on these familiar heuristics even when a more optimal solution exists away from the ingrained mental process. 

Mental set

Mental set is a cognitive tendency where individuals approach problem-solving with a predetermined mindset or a fixed strategy based on past experiences. It involves relying on familiar methods that have proven successful in the past, even when they may not be the most appropriate for a current situation. 

The mental set contributes to the Einstellung effect by predisposing individuals to approach new problems with preconceived notions or fixed strategies. When faced with a task, the mind tends to rely on familiar methods that have worked in the past. This reliance on established approaches can create a cognitive bias, leading individuals to overlook more efficient or creative solutions that deviate from their accustomed ways of thinking. In essence, the mental set reinforces a closed mindset, making it challenging to break free from established patterns and consider alternative problem-solving approaches, thus contributing to the Einstellung effect.

Why it is important

Acknowledging the tendency to rely on familiar solutions is a crucial step in improving problem-solving processes. By recognizing and actively working on overcoming mental rigidity, individuals can explore new and innovative approaches to similar challenges. This proactive approach fosters creativity by allowing individuals to break away from established mental frameworks, enhancing their ability to generate inventive solutions, especially in dynamic fields like technology, design, and scientific research.4

On an organizational level, it is necessary to address the Einstellung effect and proactively work against its impact. Companies can implement strategies fostering a culture of innovation and adaptability. By cultivating an environment that embraces new ideas, diverse perspectives, and alternative problem-solving methods, organizations position themselves for more effective decision-making. This strategic approach not only mitigates the risk of succumbing to mental rigidity but also provides a competitive edge in dynamic environments, where the ability to adapt and innovate is paramount.

However, the consequences of succumbing to the Einstellung effect can be substantial. Individuals persistently relying on familiar solutions may face challenges such as stagnation in creativity and limited adaptability. In sectors demanding continuous innovation, a failure to break away from established mental sets can impede progress and restrict the exploration of more effective approaches. Organizational cultures perpetuating this bias may encounter issues such as decreased innovation, stifled creativity, and reduced competitiveness in rapidly evolving markets. Similarly, within the educational realm, a continued emphasis on rote learning without addressing mental rigidity can result in students lacking critical thinking skills, impairing their ability to tackle novel problems across various contexts.

How to avoid it 

Being conscious of your thought processes and recognizing when you are going back to familiar solutions may help you become more aware of your mental patterns. This will allow you to consciously search for alternative solutions to the same problem. Here are some common approaches on how to avoid falling victim to this effect:

Diverse problem-solving techniques

To counter the Einstellung effect, actively engage in diverse problem-solving techniques. Deliberately expand your toolkit of approaches by embracing methods that may initially seem unfamiliar. This fosters a sense of cognitive flexibility that enables more innovative and adaptive responses to challenges. By consciously exploring various methods, you break away from habitual thinking patterns, fostering a dynamic problem-solving mindset.

Encourage diverse perspectives in collaboration

In collaborative settings, establish an environment where diverse perspectives are not only welcomed but actively encouraged. Creating a culture that values and seeks out alternative solutions and viewpoints significantly reduces the impact of entrenched mental sets. Embrace the diversity within your team, recognizing that varied perspectives lead to more robust and creative solutions. This collaborative atmosphere enriches problem-solving discussions and promotes openness to different approaches.

Break problems into smaller parts for nuanced solutions

A practical strategy to mitigate the Einstellung effect involves breaking down problems into smaller, manageable parts. Instead of approaching a problem as a whole, dissect it into components. This intentional approach minimizes the automatic application of known solutions, fostering a more nuanced and adaptable problem-solving process. Addressing specific aspects independently creates space for creative thinking, preventing the limitations imposed by rigid thought patterns.

How it all started

The concept of the Einstellung effect has its roots in the field of psychology and cognitive science. The phenomenon was first systematically studied by Abraham S. Luchins in the 1940s.

Luchins conducted a series of experiments to investigate how prior knowledge or experiences could influence problem-solving. In one notable experiment, known as the “Water Jar Experiments,” participants were asked to find a series of mathematical solutions to fill a target volume using three jars of specific capacities. The catch was that a simpler solution, different from the familiar one, was available. However, participants tended to stick to the familiar method, even if it was less efficient for the new problem.

The term “Einstellung effect” was later coined to describe this tendency of the mind to adopt a predetermined mindset, even when a more optimal solution is available. Subsequent research was conducted, including studies by other psychologists and cognitive scientists. The researchers further explored and validated the concept and examined its manifestations in various domains such as chess, problem-solving, and decision-making.

The Einstellung effect remains a valuable concept in understanding cognitive biases and has practical implications in fields ranging from psychology to education and business, highlighting the importance of overcoming mental rigidity for more effective problem-solving and decision-making.

Example 1 - Technological transition in a traditional manufacturing firm

In a well-established manufacturing firm, the Einstellung effect became evident during a transition to advanced technologies. The company had a history of using conventional manufacturing processes, and as the industry evolved towards automation and smart manufacturing, a significant technological shift was necessary. Despite the potential benefits of adopting Industry 4.0 technologies, the workforce resisted the change due to their deep-rooted familiarity with traditional methods.

Employees, accustomed to manual processes, initially rejected the integration of automation and data analytics, clinging to the comfort of what had worked in the past. This resistance slowed down the company’s adaptation to more efficient and competitive practices. To address this, the company began a much more comprehensive training program that not only focused on the technical aspects of the new technologies but also emphasized the importance of embracing innovation. Over time, the workforce became more receptive to the changes, and the company was able to successfully navigate the technological transition.

Example 2 - Transition to virtual learning in a traditional school system

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools faced the challenge of transitioning to virtual learning. Educators in a traditionally structured school system with a history of in-person teaching encountered the Einstellung effect when implementing online education. Despite the availability of various digital tools and platforms, some teachers initially resisted moving away from the traditional classroom setting.

The Einstellung effect was rooted in the familiarity of face-to-face teaching methods which led to challenges in adapting to virtual platforms. Some educators found it difficult to explore and effectively integrate technology into their teaching practices which ultimately impacted the quality of online education delivery. Recognizing the need for support, the school system provided targeted training sessions, not only focusing on technical skills but also addressing the psychological aspects of embracing a new educational paradigm. This approach facilitated a smoother transition to virtual learning, demonstrating the importance of overcoming cognitive biases for successful adaptation in the education sector.


What it is

The Einstellung effect describes when individuals approach a problem with a mindset that has worked in the past, even if a more efficient solution exists. This phenomenon, rooted in the brain’s reliance on familiar patterns and synaptic plasticity, hinders creativity and problem-solving by limiting consideration of alternative perspectives.

Why it happens

The Einstellung effect occurs due to the brain’s efficiency-seeking nature, relying on established neural pathways developed through repeated experiences. Synaptic plasticity reinforces these pathways, making them default choices when confronted with similar situations. Additionally, problem-solving heuristics, or mental shortcuts, contribute to this bias by favoring familiar approaches.

Example 1 – Technological transition in a traditional manufacturing firm

In a manufacturing firm, the Einstellung effect surfaced during a transition to advanced technologies. The resistance of the workforce to adopting Industry 4.0 technologies stemmed from their deep-rooted familiarity with traditional manufacturing methods. Overcoming this resistance required a comprehensive training program emphasizing both technical aspects and the importance of embracing innovation.

Example 2 – Transition to virtual learning in a traditional school system

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a traditional school system faced the challenge of transitioning to virtual learning. Educators encountered the Einstellung effect as some resisted moving away from traditional teaching methods. Targeted training sessions addressing both technical skills and psychological aspects facilitated a smoother transition, highlighting the need to overcome cognitive biases for successful adaptation.

How to avoid it

To overcome the Einstellung effect, individuals can cultivate self-awareness, actively engage in diverse problem-solving, and foster an environment valuing different perspectives. Breaking down complex problems, reflecting on previous solutions, and embracing continuous learning contribute to nuanced and adaptable problem-solving. These strategies empower individuals to navigate challenges with flexibility, mitigating the impact of the Einstellung effect on decision-making.


  1. Interaction Design Foundation - IxDF. (2021, October 27). What is Einstellung Effect?. Interaction Design Foundation - IxDF.https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/einstellung-effect
  2. Productivity Guy (2020, November 21). What is Einstellung Effect | Explained in 2 min [Video]. Youtube. https://youtu.be/JMHeXvgTCbo?si=jkytBvnrugpEvmsg
  3. Mike Sturn (2020, Febrary 24). The Einstellung Effect and Functional Fixedness: Two Dangerous Cognitive Biases and How to Overcome Them. Medium - https://medium.com/mind-cafe/the-einstellung-effect-and-functional-fixedness-two-dangerous-cognitive-biases-and-how-to-31e79e92d1e7
  4. Barlach L. & Plonski G.A. (2021, March 11). The Einstellung effect, mental rigidity and decision-making in startup accelerators. Emerald - https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/INMR-06-2020-0079/full/html

About the Authors

Dan Pilat's portrait

Dan Pilat

Dan is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. Dan has a background in organizational decision making, with a BComm in Decision & Information Systems from McGill University. He has worked on enterprise-level behavioral architecture at TD Securities and BMO Capital Markets, where he advised management on the implementation of systems processing billions of dollars per week. Driven by an appetite for the latest in technology, Dan created a course on business intelligence and lectured at McGill University, and has applied behavioral science to topics such as augmented and virtual reality.

Sekoul Krastev's portrait

Dr. Sekoul Krastev

Sekoul is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. A decision scientist with a PhD in Decision Neuroscience from McGill University, Sekoul's work has been featured in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented at conferences around the world. Sekoul previously advised management on innovation and engagement strategy at The Boston Consulting Group as well as on online media strategy at Google. He has a deep interest in the applications of behavioral science to new technology and has published on these topics in places such as the Huffington Post and Strategy & Business.

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