When you woke up this morning were you an expert water measurer? No? Well, you will be after reading this article. But that might not be a good thing: experts are sometimes worse off than regular Janes and Joes. To see why, first we need to wire your brain for expertise--read on.
Imagine you have three jars. One holds 4 units of water. Another holds 12 units. And the last holds 3. How can you measure exactly 2 units? (Hint: there's gotta be some subtraction here.)
Now check this out: Jar A holds 8 units, jar B holds 24 units, and jar C holds 6 units. How can you measure 4 units?
And finally: Jar A holds 12 units, jar B holds 36 units, and jar C holds 9 units. How can you measure exactly 6 units?
Congratulations! You're an expert!
Now the test: Jar A holds 6 units, jar B holds 78 units, and jar C holds 22 units. How can you measure 28 units?
Did you start with 78, subtract two-times-22, and then subtract another six (B-2C-A)? If so, congratulations again! You used the technique you learned to solve the tricky problem!
But check this out—there's another solution: just add 22 and 6 (A+C). Wow, that would've been easier, huh?
But don't feel bad. This water jar experiment by Abraham Luchins (1942) is a classic demonstration of the Einstellung effect: your previous experience makes the new problem more difficult.
And the Einstellung effect isn't confined to water jars. It leaps the laboratory, showing up in situations like chess. We apply the solutions that worked in the past even when better solutions are available.
Or, certain people do.
To have previous solutions to fall back on requires some expertise. And so experts fall into the Einstellung trap: they use familiar, non-optimal solutions (while average Janes and Joes have to develop a fresh solution and are more likely to find the simplest way).
But something interesting happens when chess players reach a certain level of expertise: they stop getting sucked into the Einstellung trap. At the stage of Zen chess enlightenment, the mind again becomes flexible as the uncarved block, and masters look past familiarity and into optimal solutions, be they in or out of the box.
Einstellung (baby!) is only a trap for people who THINK they're experts. As a sidenote, I'd LOVE to hear your experiences of experts failing! When have you seen people fall into this trap? What do you keep doing despite it not being the best way?