Schemas, stereotypes, and the Einstellung effect

We have so far seen how the conventional cognitive biases work, and how they may impair our decision-making. In this blog post we will examine three related cognitive phenomena in which knowledge, experience, and expertise counterintuitively hinder rather than help our judgment and decision-making.

Thinking. Kurtis Garbutt on Flickr.


Schemas are defined by Eysenk and colleagues, writing in Cognitive Psychology. A Student’s Handbook, as ‘well-integrated packets of knowledge about the world, events, people and actions’ , and they are what we frequently use to ‘facilitate understandings of what we hear and read’. Schemas, they pointed out, influence our judgments because they ‘allow us to form expectations‘, and they ‘determine what we remember‘. Laurence Gonzalez, in his book Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things, refers to schemas as mental models, and he argued that they are a major cause of poor judgments when they dispense of any information that contradicts them; when they are applied inappropriately to the wrong situation; or, even worse, when problems for which there are no mental models are ignored. Schemas are specific to individuals; they are formed from prior experience and they become ingrained in the subconscious where they covertly determine how we approach problems. To overcome the influence of schemas on decision-making, Gonzalez recommends that ‘old mental models need to be disrupted in order to see clearly ‘, and he asserts that ‘this is best done by wide knowledge acquisition and mindfulness‘.

Neurological connections. NIH Image Gallery on Flickr.


Stereotyping, according to Najman and colleagues in their paper titled Patient characteristics negatively stereotyped by doctors, is the tendency to pay less attention, care, or resources, to people based on their overtly negative characteristics. In healthcare, people often prejudicially stereotyped include alcoholics, people who have attempted suicide, drug addicts, prostitutes, the mentally impaired, women, and the elderly. James Groves symbolised anyone in this category as ‘the hateful patient – a person who, by some natural or personal trait he or she possesses, evokes prejudiced feelings in some medical practitioners. Stereotyping is therefore an unconscious mechanism that is not only unfair, but it can cloud our judgments and impair our decision-making resulting in misdiagnosis and mistreatment.

Prejudice. Mo on Flickr.

The Einstellung effect

According to Bilalic and colleagues, in their paper titled Why good thoughts block better ones: the mechanism of the pernicious Einstellung (set) effect, the Einstellung effect is the tendency for the first solution that comes to mind to prevent the consideration of better solutions to solve problems. A bias that overwhelmingly affects experts, the Einstellung effect strongly influences decision-making because the solution that comes to mind is often one that has been successful in solving similar problems in the past. Indeed, it is because the solution has been effective that it readily comes to mind when faced with similar problems. Unfortunately this complacent reliance on previous strategies hinders the consideration of better approaches, and this is especially consequential when the novel problem is in reality different from the previous ones.

Lost (in one’s thoughts). Wayne S. Grazio on Flickr.

We have now seen how the gamut of cognitive biases negatively influence decision-making. In the next blog post, we will flip things around and see how cognitive biases, as pilloried as they are, may have some merit in specific circumstances.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s