By Rick Stone
TLG Chief Storyteller & Strategic Partner
The Einstellung effect shows up for us daily in what psychologists term “confirmation bias.” Peter Wason[i] was the first to name it. Confirmation bias can have all kinds of pernicious and harmful consequences. For example, if you have chosen to get a second opinion on a serious medical condition and the new doctor reads the diagnosis of the first physician, he or she is more likely to not see data or symptoms that might contradict the earlier diagnosis. The initial diagnosis can affect their judgement and more than likely will lead them to agree with the first physician’s take on your situation.
Jerome Groopman, in his recent book How Doctors Think, chronicles case after case of patients who needlessly suffered for decades with debilitating illnesses because they were misdiagnosed. In one case it was only when the new physician put aside the thick stack of medical records dating back twenty years and said, “Let’s start when you first experienced these symptoms.” Listening to the patient’s story with fresh ears led to a new insight that simply had been overlooked by competent, seasoned doctors, which resulted in a renewed life without suffering for the patient.
Perhaps the most damning evidence for how we get locked into patterns of understanding our world leading to the replication of the same old story is that the average doctor takes a mere 18 seconds to reach a conclusion about what is ailing you. Yes, you read it correctly—18 seconds. While you may have more relevant and conflicting data to share in your medical story, it won’t matter. Your physician has essentially stopped listening.
Once you begin looking for it, the Einstellung effect shows up everywhere. Jurors stop listening to evidence when it contradicts conclusions they have drawn earlier in the trial, even if it directly contradicts their conclusions. When hiring someone, you may want to think you’re not biased about a person’s weight, for example, or race, or attractiveness, but the research decidedly points in the other direction. We quickly decide whether this person is a good fit and stop considering evidence to the contrary.
One of the most glaring examples of this kind of bias occurred for decades in symphony orchestras. Women musicians were sorely underrepresented. On paper they were competitive, and in many cases superior to the men whom they were competing against for a valued chair. But orchestra leaders were predominantly men and they controlled the hiring process. While they may have claimed they weren’t prejudiced against women and were impartial as they listened to their audition, not until candidates began performing behind a screen so judges could not discern their gender did we see women taking their well-deserved seats in some of the nation’s best orchestras.
Can we counteract the pernicious impact of the Einstellung effect? It would appear just the act of awareness that it’s operating in our judgement and affecting the stories we create about our world can help us take steps to compensate for its impact. In Bilalić’s studies of chess[ii], they found grand chess masters, the experts, were less susceptible to the Einstellung effect than rank amateurs when confronted with vexing compositions on the board—a great case for education and further training in any field. Just recognizing that your thinking you already know an answer to a problem can potentially save you from making bad choices. You’ll be more apt to look doubly hard at the evidence your intuition (conditioned by the Einstellung Effect) may be urging you to reject out of hand.
Perhaps one lesson from medicine holds a clue for how all of us can push ourselves to think outside of the box of our pre-established assumptions. If your doctor pronounces a diagnosis, (especially within the first minute of your sharing your story about what ails you!), simply asking, “What else might it be if it’s not that?” can give the physician pause to reconsider the facts and entertain alternatives.
In our work in the creative field, it’s not uncommon for a writer to propose a storyline and become fiercely wed to his or her point of view. Working on a screenplay a few years ago with two other writers, we had a guiding principle. If any one of us didn’t like an idea, a piece of dialogue, or a direction for a character’s development, we nixed it—no questions asked. It forced us not to get locked in. We all checked our Einstellung effect at the door as best we could. I’d like to think the outcome was superior to anything any one of us could have produced on our own.
 Thinking and Reasoning, (co-edited with P N Johnson-Laird, 1968)
 Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones: The Mechanism of the Pernicious Einstellung (Set) Effect, Merim Bilalić, Peter McLeod, Fernand Gobet, Cognition, 2008 Sep;108(3):652-61.