Hey look, a nail!

Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher (Bias musicus)I’ve written here a few times about cognitive biases. They encompass a wide variety of mental phenomena. Blind spots, biases, etc. etc.  They enable fast thinking based on patterns and previous experiences. One assumes this is valuable for instantaneous decision making. But when “the good gets in the way of the best,” it’s a source of interest for many people.  

A friend pointed me to the The March 2014 Scientific American piece on Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones (intro only) by Merim Bilalić and Peter McLeod that talks about the Einstellung Effect.  (An earlier version of the article is available as When Good Thoughts Block Better Ones by Merim Bilalić, Peter McLeod and Fernand Gobet published in Cognition in 2008.) 

This particular cognitive bias is the “I have a hammer, therefore everything is a nail.”  They demonstrate this through chess players who get locked into a favorite closing move, even though there is an even better closing move on the table. There’s a sidebar on how they did the research. Of course, this doesn’t only happen with chess players - the original Einstellung research was on doing relatively simple math problems.  And we see ourselves getting stuck with familiar solutions all the time - at least I see myself getting stuck on familiar when there might be opportunities for better solutions if I were to just step back and think differently.

It would be nice to see more discussion of how to break oneself of the bias.  The Scientific American article suggests that people overcome the bias as they gain more expertise - I suspect this is because they gain more experience that tells them to look beyond the first solution.  The article also said that even Grand Masters are not infallible.

It is entertaining that the earlier paper closes with a 400-year-old quote from Francis Bacon. (And the SA article with a quote from Darwin.)  This isn’t something people are just noticing:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion ... draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate. ... Men mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happen much oftener, neglect and pass them by. But with far more subtlety does this mischief insinuate itself into philosophy and the sciences, in which the first conclusion colours and brings into conformity with itself all that comes after ... It is the peculiar and particular error of the human intellect to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than negatives (p. 36 of Novum Organum).

[Photo: "Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher (Bias musicus)" by Tom Tarrant]

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