Mental set, in basic terms, refers to the tendency to stick to solutions that have worked for you in the past when trying to solve a problem. In trying to make these familiar solutions work, you typically end up overlooking or ignoring other possible solutions.
This phenomenon is also known as the Einstellung effect. Experts first explored it in 1942 with a series of experiments showing how people revert to learned solutions, even when simpler ones exist.
As you might already know, even solutions that usually prove helpful won’t work for every problem. And of course, trying to solve a problem with an ineffective solution can be a little like trying to force a puzzle piece into the wrong space. It won’t work, and you’ll probably just end up frustrated. You might even give up on the puzzle.
Similarly, fixating on the same familiar solutions can keep you from exploring strategies that might solve the problem at hand more effectively.
Read on for an in-depth exploration of mental set, including why it happens, its potential impact, and a few tips for working through unhelpful mental sets.
The water jars experiment offers a good example of mental set. Psychologist Abraham Luchins and his wife, Edith, the researchers who first introduced the Einstellung effect, used this example in their work.
They gave study participants 10 problems that involved figuring out how to get a designated amount of water using 3 jugs, each with a different capacity. The same formula worked to solve most of the problems. Eventually, they gave the participants test problems that could be solved using the same complicated strategy — or a much easier one.
Most of the participants continued to use the complicated formula they had learned, failing to see the simpler solution.
You might find these examples of mental set in action a little more relatable:
- You pull on a door handle to open it. The door doesn’t open. You pull on it a few more times before you try to push, failing to notice the “push” sign on the door.
- You try to jumpstart your stalled car, as you have several times before, only to have someone point out that the gas light has come on and you’ve actually run out of gas.
- Your computer freezes, so you automatically push the power button without trying to close a few windows or find another, potentially more efficient solution — one that doesn’t involve losing your work. After all, restarting has always solved the problem before.
A similar issue that can come up when solving problems is functional fixedness, or inability to see other potential uses for an object.
Here’s an example:
You’re putting together a new chair with only a screwdriver. You use it to fasten all the screws included in the package. But then you come to a wooden dowel you need to hammer into a premade hole. You don’t have a hammer with you. So, you put everything down and get up to go search for one, not considering that you could use the screwdriver handle to simply tap the dowel into the hole.
Past experiences and habits tend to drive mental sets, in part because that’s just how your brain works. It tends to seek out the most familiar solution to a problem, generally speaking.
Other factors that can play a part include:
- knowledge you’ve gained from dealing with similar situations in the past
- repeatedly practicing a certain solution
- having expertise in a specific area
For example, an expert in a specific field can often solve problems more efficiently than someone new to the field. That’s because their experience has generally taught them how to find an effective solution.
But what happens when an issue that requires a non-routine approach comes up? This same expertise can prevent them from considering other, more creative solutions that exist outside their usual solution space.
Someone with less experience, on the other hand, may not automatically reach for the tried-and-tested approach. As a result, they might have an easier time identifying alternate solutions.
While anyone can experience this phenomenon, certain personality traits could have an impact on how you handle it.
Though mental set can help you solve problems, it can also create obstacles when it contributes to overly rigid thinking or leaves you too set in your ways, so to speak, to consider other possibilities.
What you already know or have done in the past impacts what you do next, explains Marci DeCaro, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville.
“Usually, this is a helpful aspect of cognition, but sometimes it blocks us from being flexible or creative,” says DeCaro.
Children, for example, can have difficulty when they encounter a math problem in a format they’re not used to, such as 4 + 2 = _ + 2.
“Some children will put ‘6’ for the answer, assuming the problem is the same as previous problems they have done, with addition on the left, and the answer on the right,” says Decaro.
She goes on to explain that adults do similar things and points to the matchstick task used in her research.
The task required the study participants to arrange a series of matchsticks that created a false arithmetic statement into a true arithmetic statement. They had to follow specific rules as to which matchsticks could be moved. The solution was to switch the “+” to an “=”.
“They make assumptions, and it becomes hard to move past those assumptions, to think outside the box — like assuming that you can only manipulate numbers in the matchstick task, because it seems like a math problem,” says DeCaro.
So, mental set can pop up in day-to-day problems, like figuring out a math problem or putting together a piece of furniture.
In some contexts, it can go beyond these practical tasks to affect well-being in more profound ways, too.
You might already know that patterns of unproductive or repetitive unwanted thoughts can play a part in depression.
Depression can involve self-critical thoughts and beliefs, like believing you’re useless or that a situation is hopeless. These negative thoughts themselves don’t represent mental set — but the continued suppression of them can become a mental set.
If you can’t shift away from these thought patterns, you might find it tough to identify actionable coping strategies that could make a difference. On the other hand, noticing these thoughts and consciously choosing to challenge and reframe them could promote positive change.
Mental sets aren’t a habit you need to kick, per se. As a matter of fact, it’s often helpful to know you can draw on previously acquired knowledge when you need to solve a problem quickly.
That said, there’s always benefit to staying flexible and keeping an open mind, especially when it comes to problem-solving. If you’re faced with a dilemma, a willingness to consider other possibilities and solutions just makes good sense.
It might be worth getting support from a professional when:
- a mental set becomes a consistent obstacle
- problems seem insurmountable
- fixed patterns of thinking keep you from finding solutions for specific everyday tasks
Our guide can help you find a therapist who’s right for you.
What about other reinforced patterns of behavior?
You might wonder whether other types of challenges, like patterns of relationship conflict, count as mental set.
There’s some similarity, yes. But mental set strictly refers to problem-solving in the context of day-to-day tasks.
All the same, when solutions to social and emotional concerns don’t come easily, a mental health professional can always offer more guidance and support.
Maybe you keep having the same arguments over and over with your partner, or find it next to impossible to grasp new procedures and keep up with technology changes at work.
A therapist can help you:
- reconsider rigid mindsets
- explore alternate approaches
- adapt to change
Joanne Frederick, EdD, NCC, LCPC, licensed mental health counselor in Washington, D.C. and author of the book Copeology, offers a few examples of how therapy can help you address these patterns of behavior and find new solutions.
“Someone might come into therapy who is a “shouter.” That is, they believe the way to win an argument is to be louder than the opposition,” says Frederick.
Maybe they used that tactic to navigate conflict successfully in the past, but they’ve since learned it usually creates more problems in their relationships.
“Working with a therapist can teach them new ways of having constructive discussions that don’t entail yelling or bullying the other person into submission,” says Frederick.
That might mean:
- accepting that there’s no need to “win” the argument
- remembering to consider the other person’s perspective
- practicing active listening
- staying mindful of body language
Maybe you think, “The only way I can relax and destress after work is if I kick back and have a few cocktails. After all, I’ve always done that.”
Of course, this isn’t the way a mental health professional might recommend coping with stress, Frederick notes.
She explains that therapy goals might include brainstorming new ways to address stressors and devising options for managing stress that don’t involve alcohol.
For example, you might list a few other activities that help soothe tension and worry, such as:
- listening to music
- a movie night with your best friend
Verifying solution implementation
Once a suggestion has been made and you’ve carried it out, you and your therapist can review the situation to check how well the new problem-solving technique went, Frederick explains.
This might involve some troubleshooting if you found yourself falling back into familiar habits. If one alternate coping strategy didn’t help, you might try the next option on your list.
Therapy to change a specific mindset can help in many areas of life, Frederick says, such as when you’d like support with:
- identifying situations that trigger negative emotions
- learning to regulate unwanted emotions
- boosting your ability to handle everyday problems
- developing a toolbox of strategies for life challenges
- finding creative solutions to achieve goals
- identifying obstacles getting in the way of success
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is just one type of therapy that can help.
Mental sets can serve as both a blessing and a curse.
Sure, defaulting to the familiar, tried-and-true solution to a problem can provide a quick fix in some cases. But in other circumstances, the ability to identify and take advantage of alternate solutions can often save you a lot of time and aggravation.
A therapist can offer more insight when it comes to recognizing mental set. Therapy also offers a great place to learn and practice more effective problem-solving skills in general, whether you’re hoping to overcome a mental set or address other unhelpful patterns of behavior.
To learn more about your options for therapy:
- ask a healthcare professional for a referral
- contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine
- check out an online therapy provider, like BetterHelp or TalkSpace
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.