16 November 2017

The Einstellung Effect

Spotted in the March 2014 issue of Scientific American, under the heading 'Psychology'. The introduction on the magazine's contents page said,

The human brain has a dogged tendency to stick with a familiar solution to a problem -- the one that first comes to mind -- and to ignore alternatives, even when they are superior.

The first two pages of the related article are shown in the following image.

'Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones'

Article by Merim Bilalic and Peter McLeod
Illustration by Danny Schwartz

The caption on the right says,

While we are working through a problem, the brain's tendency to stick with familiar ideas can literally blind us to superior solutions.

The article starts,

In a classic 1942 experiment, American psychologist Abraham Luchins asked volunteers to do some basic math by picturing water jugs in their mind. [The participants had to figure out how to transfer liquid between the containers to measure out precisely 100 units.] Luchins presented his volunteers with several more problems that could be solved with essentially the same three steps; they made quick work of them. Yet when he gave them a problem with a simpler and faster solution than the previous tasks, they failed to see it. [...]

The water jug experiment is one of the most famous examples of the Einstellung effect: the human brain's dogged tendency to stick with a familiar solution to a problem -- the one that first comes to mind -- and to ignore alternatives.

What does that have to do with chess?

In recent eye-tracking experiments, familiar ideas blinded chess players to areas of a chessboard that would have provided clues to better solutions.

The article (with a different title?!) is available to subscribers on the magazine's site: Why Your First Idea Can Blind You to a Better One (scientificamerican.com). Another, shorter article on the same site, How Psychologists Study the Einstellung Effect in Chess (also March 2014), deals with the chess experiment: 'Cognitive bias can prevent even the most talented chess players from seeing the swiftest path to victory'.

The full article (with 'PDF Download Available') can be found on Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones (researchgate.net). As for the illustration of the two geezers playing chess in front of the fireplace -- which caught my attention before the rest of the article -- it can also be seen on the artist's site, Danny Schwartz Illustration.

Articles in Scientific American occasionally focus on chess to make a point. Recent examples that I featured on this blog were Are Boys Good at Chess? (March 2015) and Chess and EEG (December 2014), and there were more posts before those.

While I was looking at the version of the Bilalic & McLeod article on Researchgate.net, the site proposed two more articles by the same authors:-

It turns out the site has an entire category about the game, 'Recommendations: Discover more publications, questions and projects in Chess'. How have I managed to overlook this for so long?

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