Why do we use the same skills everywhere?

 

Law of the Instrument

, explained.

What is the Law of the Instrument?

According to the law of the instrument, when we acquire a new skill, we tend to see opportunities to use it everywhere. This bias is also known as “the law of the hammer”, “the golden hammer”, or “Maslow’s hammer”, in reference to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous quote: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”1.

Where this bias occurs

Say you’re a university student majoring in Biology and most of the evaluations in your core classes are multiple-choice exams. Throughout your studies, you’ve adapted to this form of assessment and have learned how to effectively study for and take multiple-choice tests. Suppose you then wind up taking a statistics class as an elective, where the examinations consist of a series of math questions. Instead of selecting a multiple-choice option, you must perform calculations to reach an answer. You know how to study for multiple-choice examinations and have always performed well on those sorts of tests, so you decide to study for your statistics midterm the same way. You read your textbook, memorizing key concepts, and recopy your class notes over and over until you can recite them from memory. Despite the hard work you put into preparing for the test, when the day of the statistics exam rolls around, you do poorly. Your tried and true method for studying for multiple-choice biology exams proved unsuccessful when studying for statistics. Perhaps doing practice problems would have been a more effective strategy. Yet, because you were confident in your strategy for studying for multiple-choice tests, you decided to try and call upon that skill in a different context – a perfect example of the law of the instrument.

Individual effects

The law of instrumentation can make us inefficient. When trying to solve a problem or complete a task, we may become fixated on the idea of using a specific skill or tool that we are familiar with. By trying to force it, the task could end up taking much longer than it would have if we had sought out alternative means. Moreover, while always resorting to the same skill or tool will make us more proficient in its use, it will limit us from acquiring other skills, which may benefit us in other situations.

Systemic effects

A major concern regarding the law of the instrument is its presence within the education system.2 All children are unique, each of them possessing their own strengths and weaknesses. The idea that they will all be able to learn the same things at the same rate and in the same manner is laughable. Yet, in many cases, that is how things are done. There is no one size fits all approach to education and if teachers commit the law of instrument, many students will be disadvantaged.

Why it happens

The law of the instrument results in part from déformation professionelle, which is the tendency to evaluate situations from the perspective of one’s profession. It also arises from a bias referred to as the Einstellung effect, which suggests that our previous problem-solving experiences lead to associative learning, causing us to associate new problems with ones we have previously encountered.

Déformation professionnelle

The French term “déformation professionnelle” refers to a cognitive bias that leads people to view the world through the lens of their profession. It is not surprising that our areas of expertise, which we dedicate so much of our time to, would influence the way we interpret events. Take a college party, for instance. A doctor may raise concerns over the repercussions excessive alcohol consumption may have on students’ livers in the long run and take note of the increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases. A psychologist, on the other hand, may be preoccupied with the effects of marijuana on the developing brain and the students’ risks of developing substance abuse disorders. Finally, a police officer may view the party as disruptive to the neighbors and take issue with underage drinking and the consumption of illicit substances.

Déformation professionnelle can lead to the law of the instrument when people with a certain area of expertise attempt to generalize their field-specific skills in other contexts. It makes sense that this would occur; it may be challenging for a doctor to think like a physicist, and vice versa, because they likely are faced with very different problems in the workplace. To account for this, it is useful for companies or laboratories that require diverse skill sets to hire a multidisciplinary team. By bringing multiple expert points of view to the table, it is more likely that the most effective and efficient solution will be found.

Einstellung effect

Another bias that may give rise to the law of the instrument is the Einstellung effect. Einstellung is the German word for “attitude”, and this effect refers to how our past experiences can prevent us from reaching the best solution to a given problem.

In theory, this effect is efficient. It allows us to come to a conclusion quickly, by bringing to mind a solution that worked well in a past situation that resembles the current context. The Einstellung effect is a by-product of the complex neurobiological processes that give rise to memory. Specifically, it has been suggested that it is the result of a phenomenon called synaptic plasticity. Synapses are the gaps between neurons, through which they are able to communicate. The theory put forth by Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb is that when two neurons are repeatedly activated together, the synaptic communication between them becomes stronger.3 Long term strengthening of synaptic communication is referred to as “long term potentiation”, which is a concept often cited as an important factor in memory and learning processes. This theory serves as an explanation for associative learning, which is when we come to associate a certain stimulus with a certain outcome, like how Ivan Pavlov trained his dogs to associate the sound of a bell with the reception of food.4 The Einstellung effect can be attributed to associative learning, as a current situation may remind us of a similar past situation, which we associate with a certain solution.

The Einstellung can result in the law of the instrument, as associating a current problem with a past problem can lead us to attempt to reuse a tool or skill that worked in the past to solve the problem at hand. However, even though the situations may be similar, there is no guarantee that the best solution will be the same. Instead of resorting to a strategy that worked well in the past, it is better to consider several possible approaches and select the one that fits the current context best.

Why it is important

While it can be useful to know when the skills we possess are applicable, the law of the instrument can lead to tunnel vision. If we judge every situation based on the skills we have, we prevent ourselves from seeking alternative solutions, which may be more efficient. This is limiting, as it is adaptive to be open-minded and willing to learn new skills.

How to avoid it

By keeping in mind the psychological steps to problem solving5, we can avoid committing this bias. The first step after identifying that there is a problem that needs to be solved and adequately defining its scope is not to dive in with the first strategy that comes to mind. Before tackling the problem, we should organize the information we have available to us. What do we know about the problem? What information are we missing? The next step is to determine what resources we have at our disposal. What is the time constraint? How much money can we dedicate to this cause? Are there any people who can help us through the process? Finally, we can begin brainstorming possible strategies. It is a good idea to come up with multiple solutions and to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each. Taking this step-by-step approach to problem solving will help us avoid resorting to the same solution time and time again.

How it all started

The first mention of the law of the instrument is attributed to Abraham Kaplan, who, in his book, The Conduct of Inquiry, wrote: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding” (1964, p.28)6.

Abraham Maslow is also credited with the development of this concept. Maslow is a humanistic psychologist who is best known for his Hierarchy of Needs. However, he also wrote a book titled The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance, in 1966, in which he referenced the law of the instrument.

Both Kaplan and Maslow used the example of the hammer to illustrate this bias and, while they are usually cited as the first people to introduce the law of the instrument, it has been suggested that they were not actually the first to come up with this concept. People have claimed that a quote similar to Kaplan’s famous citation about the hammer can be attributed to Mark Twain, although there is no real evidence to support this theory. Furthermore, the example of the hammer can be found in a London periodical from the 1860s, which predates Kaplan and Maslow by a century.7 That being said, there is no doubt that these two men can be credited with the concept’s popularity.

Example 1 - Computer skills

The law of the instrument is often referenced in regard to computer skills. It can take time to become comfortable using different software systems or coding in different languages, so once we feel we are adept at something, we tend to stick to it. In some cases, this makes sense. For example, if you’re given a time sensitive computer programming project, it may be more efficient to code in a language you are proficient in than it is to learn a whole new language, even if it would be better suited to the task at hand. However, this can be problematic when we avoid stepping out of our comfort zones and developing new skills that could make us more efficient in the long run.

Suppose you wanted to create a budget and track your spending. You are comfortable using Microsoft Word, so you create a document dedicated to budgeting, in which you make tables to monitor your income and money spent. While the outcome is the same, you could have saved yourself ample time by using Microsoft Excel instead. With Excel, you do not have to draw your own tables, nor do you have to do any of your own calculations. Both software systems enable you to track your spending, but Excel is better suited to the task. In this case, it would be beneficial to take the time to learn the basics of Excel, instead of resorting to your old standby, Microsoft Word.

Example 2 - Leadership styles

It is important for anyone in a leadership position to be flexible. Leaders need to be able to adapt their leadership style to the needs of their followers or team members. An approach that worked for you in past leadership roles may not be the most effective strategy in future contexts. A camp counselor who is leading a group of young children should approach their leadership position differently than a project leader working with a group of their peers. We may feel more confident using a leadership style that worked for us in the past than we are trying something new, however, when we encounter new leadership roles, it is better to focus on adapting to the novel environment and cultivating new skills. It is a learning curve and it is not always the most comfortable experience but that flexibility will ultimately lead to better outcomes in the long run.

Summary

What it is

We tend to judge situations based on the skills and tools we possess, which leads us to see opportunities to use them everywhere we look.

Why it happens

The law of the instrument results in part from déformation professionelle, which is the tendency to evaluate situations from the perspective of one’s profession. It also arises from a bias referred to as the Einstellung effect, which suggests that our previous problem-solving experiences lead to associative learning, causing us to associate new problems with ones we have previously encountered.

Example 1 – Computer skills

The law of the instrument can cause us to stay in our comfort zones when using computers for work. For example, if we are comfortable using Microsoft Word, but do not have much experience with Microsoft Excel, we may decide to create a budgeting document on Word, despite the fact that Excel is better suited for that task.

Example 2 – Leadership styles

Using the same strategies in every leadership position you take on is not an effective way to become a good leader. Just because an approach worked well in the past, does not mean that it will apply in all contexts. For example, a camp counselor who is leading a group of young children should not use the same leadership strategies as they would as a project leader working with a group of their peers. It is important to step out of your comfort zone and adapt to the needs of the situation.

How to avoid it

We can avoid the law of the instrument by following a checklist of the psychological steps involved in problem solving. These steps include identifying the problem, defining its scope, organizing the information we have and do not have, allocating resources, and brainstorming multiple possible strategies. This will help us avoid attempting to use the same skill or tool to solve every problem.

Sources

  1. Maslow, Abraham (1966). The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. South Bend, Indiana: Gateway Editions.
  2. De Bruyckere, P. (2016). The Law of the Instrument. The Economy of Meaning. https://theeconomyofmeaning.com/2016/12/18/the-law-of-the-instrument/
  3. What is synaptic plasticity? Queensland Brain Institute. The University of Queensland Australia. https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain-basics/brain/brain-physiology/what-synaptic-plasticity
  4. McLeod, S. (2018). Pavlov’s Dogs Study and Pavlovian Conditioning Explained. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html
  5. Shrestha, P. (2017). Psychological Steps Involved in Problem Solving. Psychestudy. https://www.psychestudy.com/cognitive/thinking/psychological-steps-problem-solving
  6. Abraham Kaplan (1964). The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co. p. 28. ISBN 9781412836296.
  7. If Your Only Tool Is A Hammer Then Every Problem Looks Like a Nail. Quote Investigator. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/05/08/hammer-nail/#note-8840-2