Expertise: Creatures of Habit

Know-how gets you in—and out—of ruts.

By Matthew Hutson, published on November 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Many wise people have told us it's OK to settle for suboptimal solutions. "The perfect is the enemy of the good." (Voltaire) "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." (Your dad) It's an ingrained MO, and one example is the Einstellung effect:

After learning to solve a problem one way, we're blind to more efficient methods. Research reveals why: Even when we think we're surveying new conceptual terrain, our attention is still locked onto familiar features.

Experienced chess players asked to find the shortest path to checkmate all spotted a common five-move strategy, then kept looking for something better. Yet they all missed a less-common three-move maneuver. (Equally talented players found the short win when it was the only one available.) Eye-tracking data revealed that their gazes failed to stray from the squares relevant to the first solution.

One might conclude that expertise put them in a rut and that fresh eyes could have yielded more insight, but in a companion study flexibility increased with experience, with stronger players more likely to find the shorter solution. "It's kind of counterintuitive," says Merim Bilalic of Tuebingen University in Germany. Having a little knowledge got them into a groove, but having a lot got them back out.

Bilalic calls the Einstellung effect "dangerous" because of its invisibility. Chess experts predicted that 74 percent of Masters would spot the short checkmate in the shadow of the long one. Only 18 percent did. And with satisfactory solutions, there's no immediate negative feedback: "Everything seems to work OK, until something goes wrong down the road." While cognitive habits prevent us from reinventing the wheel at every turn, wheels aren't ideal for every occasion. Then the good becomes the enemy of the perfect.