How Psychologists Study the Einstellung Effect in Chess

Cognitive bias can prevent even the most talented chess players from seeing the swiftest path to victory
chess, chess board

Wikimedia Commons/​David Lapetina

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The intellectually demanding game of chess has proved a wonderful way for psychologists to study the Einstellung effect—the brain’s tendency to stick with solutions it already knows rather than look for potentially superior ones. Experiments have shown that this cognitive bias literally changes how even expert chess players see the board in front of them.
In recent years Merim Bilalić of the University of Klagenfurt in Austria, Peter McLeod of The Queen’s College at the University of Oxford and other researchers have conducted some of the most insightful of such studies. In some of these experiments the scientists presented master chess players with a virtual board that had two solutions: They could achieve checkmate with a well-known five-sequence move called smothered mate or with a much swifter three-step solution. The players were told to reach checkmate as quickly as possible, but once they recognized the smothered mate as a possibility they became seemingly incapable of noticing the more efficient strategy. When presented with a nearly identical board on which the position of one bishop had shifted, eliminating the smothered mate as an option, the players did recognize the speedier solution, however (see “Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones,” Scientific American, March 2014).
You can watch animations of the smothered mate and swifter solution on virtual chessboards here:

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