Einste-what?

The Einstellung (EIN-shtell-loong) effect is the tendency to stick with a previous solution rather than choose a superior present option. It’s a German word with numerous meanings in English, some of which include approach, alignment, abatement, and setting. The idea is that you stop thinking of alternatives because of a previously established mindset (or “alignment”). One particular translation stands out to me most: setting. Einstellung is like being stuck on one setting and continuously delivering the same thing. It’s a cognitive bias.

Think of your known solution set like a radio dial, with each station representing a different solution you already know. You encounter a new problem, let’s say it’s the need to find a country station, so your brain immediately tunes into the last station on which you heard a country song. Turns out that station is just a pop station that was playing a mainstream song. Before long, you’re not listening to country music anymore.

In one study, chess players were measured for the Einstellung effect, being given a pre-arranged board that had two solutions to checkmate. One solution was a familiar five-move sequence and the alternative was an unknown three-move sequence. When the players recognized the well-known, but longer sequence, they failed to notice the shorter one. Why? Because the shortcut was easier on their brain. Bias.

The Einstellung effect is made worse every time it you do it. This is because once you select a solution without considering (or even seeing) a better solution, you are set on a particular path. That path leads you to a certain set of future options; at the crossroads of each decision you will unknowingly choose the path you’re already biased towards. After three or four times, how many options have you foregone? There’s literally no way of knowing because you aren’t aware of the number of options you missed.

Just for the sake of numbers, let’s say you could see 1, 2, 3, or 4 options each time you came to a decision. Whatever your first selection is, that’s what you’re most likely to see at the next decision because the Einstellung effect locks your approach. Looking four decisions out, you could have a maximum of 256 possible outcomes. Depending on the severity of the Einstellung effect on you already, you could be giving up 255 possible outcomes on your first decision.

This isn’t to say that you should just sit and mull over options all day, or that you need to look back at every decision with some kind of buyer’s remorse on life. It’s that you need to be aware of your thoughts and biases. What’s done is done, but your future is unwritten. And so, I ask you this, what would you do with your life if you saw more options?

Seriously, answer that in your head. Or better yet, write your answer down. I’ll wait.

Now that you have your life’s possibilities in mind, let’s discuss what can be done. There are several ways to increase your awareness and mitigate the Einstellung effect.

  1. Meditate. With this, you get a better ability to stop your thoughts, recognize them, and then choose how to react to them. It’s like interrupting the Einstellung effect before it’s done. Admittedly, the response I usually hear (if not, “No, that’s lame”) is that meditation doesn’t work. Now hear this: Meditation is like learning a language (or anything else) in two important ways. First, you have to practice. When you were taking [insert foreign language] in high school or college, could you speak fluently after the first day? No. I’m willing to bet you couldn’t speak fluently even after a year. Second, the purpose of practicing in class was not to tell your teacher there was a cat in the tree or a pencil on the desk. It was to go out and converse with native speakers, visit a foreign country, watch films or read books in that language. In a word, the practice was for application. While meditation is a great place to center yourself, you will really notice its effects when you’re out living life, being more aware of your thoughts. Important note: there is only one wrong way to meditate and that is by not doing it. Thoughts roll in and you let them roll right back out. Get carried away with one? Totally fine, just bring your mind back without evaluating and judging yourself.
    Recommendation: Headspace or Calm (both available as apps)

 

  1. Collaborate. Remember that awesome company that one person built by himself? Exactly. It didn’t happen. The quickest way to the Einstellung effect is by keeping all your thoughts to yourself. I know some decisions can be personal and it’s gut-wrenching to even think about sharing it with others. That’s a matter of trust and that’s a different animal entirely to tackle. But it’s likely most of your problems are not that personal in nature and can be shared. By bringing others into your world, or by bringing your problem outside of your world, you’re inviting perspective and experience. Where you only see the paved road, your friend the nature-lover might see the dirt path, or your brother the engineer might see the makeshift bridge. People like being asked for help, it makes them feel important and needed because that’s why you’re asking them: they’re important and you need them.
    Recommendation: Set a goal of asking a specific number of people about your major decisions. Let’s say 3-5 people. Give each of them the full scope of it. Then shut up and let them respond.

 

  1. Incubate. When you Google the word “incubate”, the first result is a definition: a bird sitting on an egg to keep it warm until it hatches. The bird doesn’t peck open the egg and say, “Welcome to the world!” The incubation is needed for growth. Similarly, our problems need growth in our brains. Some decisions need be solved quickly, but like collaboration, most of your decisions don’t fall in a single, limited category. If you’ve been practicing your meditation, you’ll be catching yourself rushing into a decision and follow it up with, “Why am I so quick to do this?” I can’t answer that for you, but in the time it takes you to answer it, you’ll learn more about yourself than anyone else could ever tell you. I can’t stress how important this is. You’re allowing your brain to make new connections while you do other things. If you saw a string of numbers that happened to be your birthday, you would probably be unable to see it any other way. Reverse the sequence and it likely has no meaning to you. Incubation allows you to do just that: reverse, switch, turn upside-down, and otherwise see alternatives to a problem set.
    Recommendation: Go for a 20-minute walk/run and try one of the following: Count how many times you see your favorite color; find something that starts with every letter of your first/last name (or the whole alphabet); guess how many steps it will take to get to some distant landmark and count your way there. You’ll be using some serious concentration to get these tasks done and your brain will be forced to forget the problem and use up your working memory in a different way.

 

After all is said and done, if you end up disliking all of the options that you find, you can always pick your original one. It’s not important that you take the other paths, it’s important that you know what other paths exist. It’s not about picking something else, it’s about being aware of what else is out there. Your instinct to choose a specific option might be the best path for you. Then again, it might not. Go find out.

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