Is being an expert in something always a good thing?
In his seminal publication “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” (1936), the English economist John Maynard Keynes stated the following: ‘‘The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify … into every corner of our minds’’.
He was describing something that all of us will have experienced at some point in our lives. The inability to stop thinking along well worn neural pathways which generate the same thoughts, ideas and solutions to a problem. And in doing so preventing us from thinking up the new, original and potentially better ones.
This phenomenon is known as the Einstellung effect.
The water jug problem.
It was first described scientifically by Abraham Luchins in 1942. He asked people to solve a “water jug problem” where each person was given a set of 3 jugs with various stated capacities and asked to find the solution (i.e. the formula) for how to measure out a desired quantity of water.
|Capacity of Jug A
|Capacity of Jug B
|Capacity of Jug C
If you look at these ten problems above, then you will find that all problems except number 8 can be solved by the formula: B – 2C – A.
But there is a catch.
Because although for problems 1 through 5 this is the simplest solution, for problem 7 and 9 there is a simpler solution of A + C and problems 6 and 10 can be solved as A – C. And although problem 8 cannot be solved by B – 2C – A, it can be solved by A – C.
So what did the results of this experiment show?
They found that if they asked people to try and solve all the problems in order then 83% used B- 2C – A on problems 6 and 7 and 79% used B – 2C – A on problems 9 and ten rather than the simpler options. What’s more, 64% failed to solve problem 8.
They then repeated the experiment, but this time they only presented the participants with problems 6 to 10 – in other words, the didn’t see the first five problems which could be solved with the formula B – 2C – A. And this time they observed a very different pattern of results.
Namely that fewer than 1% used B – 2C – A to solve any of the problems and only 5% failed to solve problem 8.
But why the striking difference in results? Well, the authors suggested that the participants’ prior experience interfered with their problem-solving because the familiar (but inappropriate) solution from the first set of 5 problems blocked the discovery of the new, and simpler solution for the latter set of 5 problems.
There have been more recent research examples of this phenomenon as well. In their publication entitled “Why good thoughts block better ones” Merim Bilalić and researchers at the Oxford University showed that if you solve a problem using familiar strategies from past experience – in this case in the context of playing a game of chess – then it can actually block and distract you from trying to find more novel solutions and strategies, even if you are purposely and consciously trying to come up with the novel ones.
So what does this mean? Well, one learning is that being an expert in something isn’t always a good thing. Yes, it means you can do something better than others. That you know more about something that others. But it can also make you rigid in your thinking. It can make you less efficient at solving new problems that you come across in your field of expertise. And it can prevent you thinking creatively.
Of course to your brain the Einstellung effect makes sense. Why spend time looking for an alternative solution if you already have an adequate “good enough” one? But it doesn’t make sense if you want to stay one step ahead of the game. If you don’t want to be fixated on the past. And if you want to come up with new, innovative and market challenging ideas.
So what can you do about it?
Well, the first thing is to actual realise that it is happening to you. Not always easy when it happens at a subconscious level without you realising.
A second suggestion is to think about where you are looking. In the Oxford study above they measured people’s eye movements and showed that the eyes were primarily directed toward the information which was relevant to the familiar thought pattern while ignoring other information which may have helped realise the novel one.
The third suggestion is to be constantly creating new pathways in your brain through learning, curiosity and information seeking. Because research suggests that there are experts. And then there are experts. And that one way to overcome this neural rigidity, and to regain your creative streak, might be by becoming even more of an expert.
So next time you come across what you think is a familiar problem, pause for a moment to consider whether you are using the optimal solution.
Or whether your good thoughts are blocking your better ones.