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.
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.
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.