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Why lawyers are ‘blind’ to strategies that create competitive advantage

Study reveals how to overcome their preference for the familiar

30 March 2015

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

Research into why people are resistant to improving the way they work has found that this is due to the way that the brain processes information.

People are "quite literally, blind to the alternative, better solutions" when given the option to do so, said Dr Merim Bilali?, a professor in the psychology department at Alpen-Adria University.

"Our brain generally prefers a familiar, trusted solution, rather than exploring alternatives."

The phenomenon, known as the Einstellung effect, was discovered during an experiment in the 1940s by American psychologist Abraham Luchins.

During that experiment, participants were asked to transfer liquid between water jugs with different capacities so that they would end up with 100 units of water in one container.

The solution to this task involved three steps. When participants were subsequently given simpler tasks to solve, they continued to apply the more complicated three-step solution.

Bilali? conducted similar experiments with chess players, during which his team tracked players' eye movements with an infrared camera.

Expert chess players were presented with a situation in which they could use the well-known five-step strategy 'smothered mate'. The players also had the option to win the game by applying a less familiar sequence involving only three steps.

The research found that most of the players chose the familiar and more complicated sequence, despite it putting them at a strong competitive disadvantage.

During subsequent interviews, the participants were unable to determine why they had disregarded the simpler and better alternative.

"We were able to establish that they were, quite literally, blind to the alternative, better solutions," said Bilali?.

The researchers found that the players' gaze did not shift away from the squares they had identified as part of the 'smothered mate' sequence, even though they insisted they had looked for alternative solutions.

The alternatives they did explore were clearly only variations of the already-established five-step sequence.

This phenomenon can lead to a range of biases in decision making and result in a less open-minded approach to problem solving than lawyers intend.

"The mechanism which allows the first schema activated by familiar aspects of a problem to control the subsequent direction of attention may contribute to a wide range of biases both in everyday and expert thought - from confirmation bias in hypothesis testing to the tendency of scientists to ignore results that do not fit their favoured theories," the researchers noted in their paper 'Why good thoughts block better ones: The mechanism of the pernicious Einstellung (set) effect'.

What makes the Einstellung effect particularly difficult is that most people are simply not aware of the phenomenon.

"We believe that we generally approach problems with an open mind," commented Bilali?.

"However, the brain unconsciously steers our attention towards previously-stored knowledge. Any information that does not match the solution or the theory we have already internalised tends to be ignored or masked."

This can lead lawyers to depend on precedents when making decisions and to not be open to innovative strategies that would give their firm or their clients a competitive advantage.

"We must be aware of our errors if we genuinely want to improve our thinking," he concluded.


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