The Old Solutions Aren't Always the Best (Einstellung Effect)

The Einstellung effect is probably more common than you think. It happens when you try to employ a long-established solution but one that isn't really successful.
The Old Solutions Aren't Always the Best (Einstellung Effect)
Sara González Juárez

Written and verified by the psychologist Sara González Juárez.

Last update: 13 October, 2022

The Einstellung effect is the scientific confirmation of the saying, “Better the devil you know”. Also called a problem solving set, it’s responsible for providing efficiency in the search for solutions to a problem.

Thus, the brain tries to find strategies based on the subject’s previous knowledge and experiences, where success is the cutoff mark to proceed. A problem arises when this thought process blocks the exploration of alternatives and progress. Basically, it’s based on the idea of if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

In this article, you can explore the Einstellung effect in depth, its reasons for being, and how it works. In fact, understanding the shortcuts and tricks of your mind will be really useful for making conscious and effective decisions.

The Einstellung effect

The Einstellung effect is a cognitive bias whereby you cling to known solutions to problems, closing yourself off from exploring newer or alternative ones. There’s an unconscious part to this heuristic in which your brain takes a shortcut to solve a setback efficiently. There’s also a conscious part, in which obstinacy and your fear of the unknown come into play.

Like all biases, this one is adaptive. Working with immediate reality is extremely costly at a cognitive level since it requires analyzing each situation individually. Thanks to this bias, your memory, and abstract thinking, you’re used to solving similar problems with the same solution.

The Einstellung effect intensifies as the difficulty of the problem facing the individual increases.

The Einstellung effect means resorting to known solutions to solve problems.

Harmful effects in different areas

As you can imagine, insisting on applying the same solution to several problems or using the same method for years inevitably leads to failure or lack of efficiency. After all, times change and part of our ability to survive, as humans, is to renew and adapt to these changes.

The Einstellung effect can be observed in virtually all areas of life. Here are some examples:

  • Relationships. Education and personal experiences play a fundamental role in conflict resolution. Thus, it’s common to see how some people continue to apply the same solutions to problems as disparate as jealousy and communication, even if they don’t obtain successful results.
  • Work. How many times have you started a new job and heard the phrase “We’ve always done it this way and it works”? It might not matter that it takes twice as long as other methods or that it’s more expensive, the fact is that it’s never failed.
  • Leisure. Trying new activities is often cognitively costly. For example, if you already know that you enjoy something, you’re more likely to keep it as a major form of entertainment rather than risk exploring fields that you may not like.
  • Personal development. When it comes to managing your emotions and thoughts, your internal dynamics draw on what you’ve learned and what’s been effective in the past. They’re the kind of automatic mechanisms that merely patch up your problems instead of definitively solving them.
If we want different results we need different solutions.

How to avoid the Einstellung effect

At the end of the day, this cognitive shortcut can anchor you in actions and decisions that don’t definitively end your problems. While repressing your emotions, lying, or quitting your job might get you out of immediate trouble, you’re probably ignoring certain alternative solutions that could improve your well-being.

Therefore, the first step is to become aware of this bias. After all, self-knowledge is the basis of any personal change, especially when it comes to opening your mind to new things. Here are some tips:

  • Expand your horizons. Talk to people who work in the same field as you, go to conferences, make friends, and take up new hobbies. In fact, enrich your life and you’ll find that many new ideas will come along.
  • Don’t get carried away by routine. Although a certain vital order produces security and stability, letting setbacks become a part of your routine isn’t healthy. Explore what parts of it don’t suit you and change them.
  • Avoid conformity. Often, problems that could be eliminated stay around for years shielded by the attitude of “It is what it is”. Always look for ways to solve them, because new challenges will never stop appearing.
  • Emotionally distance yourself from your problems. This approach will help you escape the automatic dynamics you’re employing. Observe them “from the outside”, as if you were another person. Give yourself advice, as if you were a friend.

Psychological help

Naturally, if you think you’ve become stuck in certain dynamics and routines that aren’t of benefit to you, it’ll always be helpful to see a psychologist. That’s because it’s not easy to get rid of the kind of toxic learning that you’ve carried with you all your life, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. While the Einstellung effect is inherent in the functioning of your mind, you can deactivate it for a while to help your personal growth.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Torres-Barneto, L. (2016). Experiencia y flexibilidad en la resolución de problemas.
  • Nizharadzei, G. A. (1990). The Einstellung-effect. Theory and experiment. Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis16(1), 55-70.
  • Ellis, J. J., & Reingold, E. M. (2014). The Einstellung effect in anagram problem solving: evidence from eye movements. Frontiers in psychology5, 679.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.