Eliminating cognitive bias in design thinking

When discussing how to tackle a new challenge, it’s common to jump straight to familiar or previously used solutions, instead of considering all the angles and details of the current problem. You may hear something like, “Well, we did x for y, so let’s do x for z now.”

We become so fixated on what we already know or have done in the past that we can’t take an unbiased look at what’s in front of us and find the best solution. This is known as the Einstellung Effect, and it can seriously impede your team’s innovation capability and design thinking capacity.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a codified, repeatable process for problem-solving, creativity, and innovation. Also referred to as human-centered design, design thinking is a framework comprised of a series of steps and associated methods, and it is accompanied by core mindsets.

It helps teams solve problems by understanding human needs and motivations, discovering opportunities, generating user-centered solutions, and building and testing prototypes. It’s a process that can take place over days, weeks, or months, and involves teams of collaborators working together to solve problems that don’t necessarily have clear-cut, black-and-white answers, such as how to better attract a new type of customer or how to drive higher engagement rates with content.

What is the Einstellung Effect?

The Einstellung effect was documented by psychologist Abraham Luchins in 1942 with a test called the “Water Jar” problem. In the experiment, subjects were asked to transfer water between jars of differing sizes to reach specific measurements. After solving a series of problems which had the same solutions, the test subjects were given a new problem and they applied the same solution to it, even though a more efficient and simpler one existed. Instead of considering the best way to get to the desired outcome, they could not “see” beyond the procedure they had just applied. (You can read more about it here, or try replicating the test here.)

Luchins called this the Einstellung Effect because “einstellung” in German can be translated as “way of thinking,” “approach,” or “attitude,” and it captures how once our way of thinking or attitude has set in, it’s hard to overcome it.

We often encounter the Einstellung Effect in action when working with organizations applying the human-centered design process to arrive at breakthrough new ideas. Teams focus on a solution that has been used for something else, and then it seems to be the right answer to just about everything.

Falling in love with the latest solution

There are definitely situations when the most familiar or latest technologies are appropriate, but often, when ideas have taken hold of our imaginations, it’s hard to step back and consider alternatives.

We regularly see teams jump to solutions right out of the gate, before they methodically go through all the steps of the design thinking process. They fall in love with what is front-of-mind, thereby missing opportunities for fresh, new ideas.

The Einstellung Effect can be a quick and easy trap to fall into, especially when we are under pressure to quickly solve a problem. Fortunately, there are some practical steps you can take to tame the Einstellung Effect, which we describe below.

1. Start with a diverse team

By assembling a team of contributors from different backgrounds, experience levels, and expertise, you are less likely to fall prey to the cognitive traps of the Einstellung Effect. Diverse team members can challenge one another’s ideas and assumptions.

For example, someone who has direct and regular interactions with audiences/customers/users is going to have a different approach or perspective than someone whose role does not involve first-hand interactions or engagement with end-users.

A 2011 study conducted by Daniel Frings of London South Bank University set out to study how fatigue (more on that in #2, below) impacts the Einstellung Effect. The study found that while people who are fatigued experience increased Einstellung Effect, those working in groups did not, and the quality of the solutions developed by the groups were often better than those developed by individuals.

2. Don’t try to innovate when you’re tired

The Frings study also underscores the impact that fatigue has on the Einstellung Effect. The more fatigued you are, the higher your risk of experiencing the Einstellung Effect.

Translation = don’t embark on a team working session for that big new project or initiative right after you’ve just launched another big project. And try to run design sessions in the mornings, when team members are fresher and rested.

3. Take breaks from the problem

Not only should your team be well rested before tackling a problem, you need to take breaks from it and literally walk away to clear your mind.

Where do your best ideas come to you? Do they emerge when sitting in yet another meeting? Chance are, your best ideas come to you later, when you’re walking the dog, driving, taking a shower, daydreaming — that is, when you are not focused on solving the problem.

This is called “incubation time,” and it’s been well-studied to improve problem solving and enhance creativity.

In a design thinking sprint, we don’t dive right into to solving a problem. We first build empathy for the needs of users, consciously and mindfully alternate between converging and diverging, take breaks, and play lots of games.

This is why we like to schedule design sprints over multiple days, not crammed into one day. It’s the insights that people have after they leave the room that are the most powerful.

4. Use “How Might We” statements

How might we” is a tool we use in the divergent or ideation phase of the design process. It’s a powerful way to reframe a question or problem that sparks new ideas, and can guide groups away from the most obvious solutions.

One of our favorite How Might We techniques is to explore the opposite of a problem. For example, if your first idea of a solution is to build an app, ask yourself, “How Might We create the opposite?” So in this case, the opposite of an app might be something completely analog and old-school.

5. Say “Yes, and” to the Einstellung Effect

This one comes from improvisational theater, which we have written a lot about before. Saying “yes, and” to the Einstellung Effect means welcoming it and embracing it.

Just knowing that the Einstellung Effect has been studied can help skeptical colleagues get on board with the need to push beyond the first or most obvious solutions. You might recognize that the first solutions that the team throws out are Einstellung-driven, say “yes, and” to those ideas, and then start building on them, expanding on them, and exploring the opposite of those ideas.

Conclusion

The Einstellung Effect happens when preexisting knowledge or experience prevents us from considering alternative possibilities to a problem. We become so fixated on one possible solution that we are cognitively unable to take a clear, unbiased approach to the current problem. Fortunately, we can take small steps to mitigate its effects, thereby giving ourselves the “cognitive space” to arrive at novel solutions to problems.


References

Lensky, T. (2015, September 23). “Do you fall prey to the Einstellung effect in problem solving?” Retrieved July 30, 2018, from https://lenski.com/einstellung-effect-in-problem-solving/

Arra, S. (2015, August 12). “Einstellung Effect: What You Already Know Can Hurt You.” Retrieved July 30, 2018 from https://www.exaptive.com/blog/einstellung-effect

Bilalić, M., and McLeod, P. (2014, March 1). “Why Your First Idea Can Blind You to a Better One.” Retrieved July 30, 2018 from  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-your-first-idea-can-blind-you-to-better-idea/