Luchin’s Water Jug Challenge.
Once we see a pattern in things, it becomes virtually impossible for us to see an alternate story given the same building blocks or facts. We get locked in and can’t escape the gravitational pull of our earlier assumptions, no matter how apparent the alternate patterns are, or how blatantly the facts are staring us in the face. While future blogs will focus on the liberating structures of stories, today we’re centering on the many ways stories can obscure our vision in some very pernicious ways.
In a seminal study from the 1940s, Abraham Luchins discovered once we see a pattern or a solution, we become predisposed to continue reverting to that solution even if there are better, more efficient or effective solutions begging to be seen. Dubbing this the Einstellung effect, he used a classic math problem to test this phenomenon by asking his subjects to imagine three jugs, each with a different capacity: 3, 21, and 127 units of water.
The challenge given to the subjects was to measure out exactly 100 units of water pouring water from jug to jug. They could fill and empty each of the jugs as frequently as they liked with the proviso when they did, they had to fill the jug all the way to the top. Have you figured it out yet?
By filling the largest container with 127 units of water first, then pouring the water into the 21-unit jug, you’d be left with 106 units in your large jug. Simply filling the 3-unit jug and pouring off the water twice thereby reducing the larger jug’s contents by 6 units, you’d be left with 100 units of water in the largest jug. It’s a relatively simple solution, don’t you agree.
Luchins then gave his subjects some other math problems involving the jugs, all best solved with the subtraction method they used in the above problem. Then he gave them a new problem, jugs measuring 3, 23, and 49 units respectively with the objective of measuring out 20 units of water. How would you solve it? As in the previous problem, you can empty the jugs as often as you like, but they must each be filled to the brim before you empty them. Don’t read further until you have worked out the solution.
If you’re like his subjects, you may have used the same method you used in the first problem. Perhaps you would have filled the larger 49-unit jug then emptied it into the 23-unit jug, leaving you 26 units in the larger container. Then you could fill the 3-unit jug twice and arrive at the 20 units. But there’s actually a much simpler solution staring you in the face. Why not just fill up the 23-unit jug, then fill up the 3-unit jug from this one, and voila, you have 20 units. What Luchins discovered with repeated experiments is once people get accustomed to solving a problem with a tried and true method, they stop seeing other possibilities, even if they’re simpler, better, timesaving, and perhaps more elegant.
Since this early discovery, the Einstellung effect has been replicated in a host of other conditions. For example, what happens when we’re particularly stressed and given problems like those above? Luchins found with elementary school students they became even more rigid in their decision-making process and even less likely than subjects in the original study to see the one-step solution to arrive at 20 units.
It would appear our rigidity in problem solving and seeing new patterns is also affected by age. Verity Ross had two experimental groups, one with a mean of 37.8 years old, the other with a mean of 60.8 years old. He controlled for differences in intelligence, education, and occupation. In almost every test, the middle-aged group showed greater flexibility in thinking and problem solving, not becoming inured to seeing things just one way, lending credence to the saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
More recently, Merim Bilalić and Peter McLeod have looked more closely at this phenomenon with chess players. Not surprising, it would appear when players become accustomed to seeing a strategic maneuver to corner the opponent’s king, known in the chess world as the “smothered mate move,” when given a new set of circumstances where there is a speedier approach requiring fewer moves, they can’t see it. It turns out this classic move colors the vision of possibilities for typical players, whereas chess masters are more adept at seeing alternate routes to checkmate. Bilalić and McLeod even set up an eye-tracking apparatus to follow what the players specifically looked at on the board. It led them to conclude the Einstellung effect creates a sort of tunnel vision—literally.
How are the stories you regularly tell yourself creating this kind of tunnel vision? How are these stories preventing you from seeing a fresher, more insightful perspective? Or, perhaps, an alternate viewpoint held by someone different from you? To what degree has your world view and the stories you’re living in been hijacked by the Einstellung Effect, profoundly limiting your moves on the chessboard of your life?
Next Week: The Power of Confirmation Bias
2 Luchins, Abraham S.; Luchins, Edith Hirsch (1959). Rigidity of behavior: a variational approach to the effect of Einstellung. University of Oregon Books. OCLC 14598941.
3 Ross, V. M. (1952). “A comparison of the effect of Einstellung in different age groups”. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, McGill University.
4 “Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones,” Scientific American. The Science Behind the Debates, 2019.