Mental Set Psychology Definition- A Brief Guide


In this article, we will dive a little deeper into psychology and learn more about our minds. By the end of this article, you would have learned more about the common tendencies that we as human beings have that typically hinder progressive cognition. A lot of our problem-solving skills originate from a place of familiarity. Our brain is wired to remember different solutions, which ideally help us overcome different problems. While that sounds useful and efficient, it may not always be the best way to go. This article will help you better understand this concept in Mental Set Psychology.

By definition, mental set generally refers to the brain’s tendency to stick with the most familiar solution to a problem and stubbornly ignoring alternatives. This is a term commonly known in psychology that helps us understand the way human cognition works.

According to this term, our brain tends to stick to solutions that worked in the past. This is commonly seen in situations where a person is exposed to a similar problem that has already been dealt with in the past. Resorting to solutions that worked in the past may be effective, but it hinders us from seeking easier and more effective solutions. For example,  assume that you are traveling to a particular destination and the road you always take is blocked.

There is helplessness in this situation as you do not know any other route because the one you have taken before is blocked. This shows how our minds narrow our thinking due to familiarity, which is not helpful during moments of distress. Thus, this leads to difficulties in problem-solving and results in narrow thinking which hampers our creativity and thinking outside the box. It also leads to a rigid way of thinking and makes it challenging to develop new and different ways to overcome challenges. 

The mental set also predisposes people’s perceptions by making them see things according to their convenience. This way of thinking is an automatic and involuntary tendency that involves resorting to a more familiar or evident solution to a problem. A mental set does not necessarily involve fixating on a particular strategy to solve a problem that has worked before. 

The most common ways this tendency originates are through previous knowledge, also known as a long-term mental set, and a temporary by-product of procedural learning, which is also known as a short-term mental set. The American Psychology Dictionary also refers to a mental set as a temporary readiness to perform certain psychological functions while successfully applying techniques known to work in the past. It is considered more as an obstacle that hinders effective thinking.  It works based on certain concepts, namely, functional fixedness, past experiences, and negative transfer.

  • Functional Fixedness: Functional fixedness is a kind of mental set in which one can only solve problems using objects that work in their expected manner, which means one does not think out of the very purpose of what the object is used for to solve a problem. S/he can use objects for problem-solving only in the way the object is intended initially to work.  It is different from the mindset.

    In functional fixedness, the actual use or purpose of an object hinders its other possible utilities. In contrast, in the mental set, it is an involuntary tendency of a person to address a problem in a familiar way that has worked before. For example, rubber can be used to tie our hair but can also be used to keep together opened packets. But a person having functional fixedness can only use rubber for tying their hair; they would not be able to see that object for multiple functions. 

  • Impact of Past Experiences: Past experiences are very important and crucial in helping one learn different ways of solving problems and gaining knowledge. It helps us learn than any Youtube “How-to” video. But at the same time, our past experiences can also be limiting.

    It may sometimes hold us back from exploring more creative and different ways of approaching a problem.  It cultivates a repetitive pattern of thinking and may hinder us from thinking of different solutions for the same problem. It narrows our mental process and it is not certain that the same solutions will work all the time. 

  • Negative Transfer: Negative transfer is similar to past experiences mentioned above. This is the tendency in which our past or previous experiences interfere with our present-day learning. This generally occurs when we are used to working in a certain way and it becomes difficult to adapt to new methods. While negative transfer makes it difficult to solve the new problems due to the interference of old ones, the opposite is true for positive transfer. Here, the older problems and methods used for solving them come in handy while being faced with new ones.

    An example of negative transfer is shifting from an automatic car to a manual car may be difficult for a person as they are already used to driving a particular type of car. In this scenario, the past situation is driving an automatic car which is hampering new learning strategies. 

  • Stereotypes: A stereotype is a well-known term in today’s day and age. It’s known as a preconceived notion that is generally directed towards a social group. It is learned through association and taught by the people of their own social group. In psychology, the stereotype is a type of mental set. It stands in the way of progressive thinking which may cause harm in our day-to-day lives. 

  • Problem-Solving: Psychology defines problem-solving as a way of reaching a goal from a present condition or situation which is either moving towards the goal or is far from it which needs complex logic to achieve that goal. As we can already see from the above content, mental set is one of the biggest barriers to efficient problem-solving. Other such barriers are unnecessary constraints, assumptions, and irrelevant information.

    Our mind places unnecessary boundaries on us or provides us with irrelevant information which is not needed or is unrelated to the problem. This typically distracts the person from the problem which will eventually cause them distress and stray them away from solving the problem in a smooth manner. However, there are different methods and strategies for problem-solving which will help us overcome the tendency of the mental set. 

The steps to problem-solving are:

  • The first step to problem-solving is to discover an existing problem that causes inconvenience. Only when one is aware of a problem, can one proceed to the next step.
  • Second, an active decision must be made whether they want to tackle the said problem or leave it unattended.
  • Next, one has to completely understand the problem to come up with an appropriate solution. 
  • The next step is to research the available options. This involves studying and analyzing the problem in such a way that you are able to come up with the most effective solution. 
  • The final step in problem solving involves taking necessary actions to implement the plan that has been researched in the previous step. This is the action process and includes actually solving the problem.

Apart from this, there are four well-known strategies for problem-solving. They are:

  • Algorithm: An algorithm refers to a step-by-step process to solving a problem. This method generally involves in-depth steps and processes and always leads to a guaranteed result. The only offset about this method is that it may not always be the easiest and fastest method. Examples for algorithm are mathematical equations and solutions. Solving a mathematical problem step by step is similar to problem-solving using an algorithm. 

  • Heuristics: Heuristic is a method that is experience and practice-based. Although it is less time-consuming in comparison to algorithm, it may not always produce the right results that one is looking for. 

  • Trial and Error: A trial-and-error approach involves trying out and exploring different types of solutions for a problem and ruling out options that do not work. This is also time-consuming as it involves trying out different solutions until you find the one that works. For example, if your television remote is not working, you will try hitting the remote, taking the batteries out, switching different positions, etc. till it starts working.

  • Insight: In the insight approach, there is a sudden spark of a solution to a problem. This is common in situations where the problem is similar to the one which has been dealt with before.  For example, while playing a video game and you are stuck in a particular level, you may get a sudden insight on what to do to complete that level.

There are many other strategies for problem-solving which are not as common as algorithm, heuristics, trial-and-error, and insight. Those include:

  • Abstraction: Abstraction involves developing a general idea of a problem and coming up with solution on theory before applying it in real life.

  • Analogy: This is similar to the mental set in which we use a solution that has worked for a similar problem. 

  • Brainstorming: This is a method in which one or more people, more commonly a group of people brainstorm or sit together and come up with different ideas for solving a problem. As a group, they analyze the results of each solution and decide upon the best and most applicable one. 

  • Divide and Conquer: Like the name suggests, one complex problem is broken down into segments and dealt with in small manageable parts.

  • Hypothesis Thinking:  In this method, a probable hypothesis is formed as a solution and tested to prove whether it is applicable or not. 

  • Lateral Thinking: This method has a strain of creativity in it. Using this method, the problem is approached in an unusual, different, and creative manner.

  • Means-Ends Analysis: This involves analyzing and coming up with solutions step by step in small amounts in order to get closer to the goal with each step.

  • Morphological Analysis: This method is typically used to solve more complex problems. Here, a big unit or system is broken down into pieces to conduct an analysis on its output and interactions.

  • Proof: This is typically the opposite of problem solving. Here, the proof is done to show that the particular problem cannot be solved. This is similar to hypothesis, except in this method, the hypothesis is that the problem cannot be solved. Proving this wrong is where the problem-solving begins. 

  • Reduction: In a mental set, solutions of similar problems are used. In reduction, however, the problem is purposefully modified to resemble a similar problem so that its solution can be used. 

  • Research: This method uses already persisting knowledge to solve a similar problem. This resembles a mental set.

  • Root-Cause Analysis: In this method, the root cause or the reason for the problem is identified. Eradication of the root-cause invariably acts as a solution for the problem.  

Some of the commonly asked questions are:

  • Why is it important to learn about the mental set?

Learning and understanding the mindset is critical. It helps us better understand our mental processes and why we carry out the same or similar process while solving a problem. We do this even when we do not get the desired results. In situations like this, the explanation of the mental set helps answer this question.

  • Does the mental set change the way we view things?

Yes. The mental set changes our perception and the way we see things as it can limit our vision. It brings about a monotonous way of thinking and brings about the tendency in which we perceive things the way we want.

  • Is mental set good or bad?

The mental set can be both good and bad for us. Sometimes we can use it to our advantage by applying previously worked solutions for problems and prospering successfully. But at the same time, the mental set may also be limiting as previous solutions may not always work for all types of problems. This can hamper a person’s ability to think outside the box.

  • What is the difference between heuristics and insight?

In heuristics, problem-solving is focused more on a practical basis rather than theory. Therefore, it may not always guarantee a successful result. Whereas in insight, there is a sudden realization of a solution to a problem that is guaranteed to work most of the time. 

  • What is the difference between mental set and functional fixedness?

A mental set is an unconscious approach or tendency towards solving a problem where a person uses familiar methods. In contrast, functional fixedness is when a person fixates an object’s original purpose without opening their minds to its multiple uses. Thus, the mental set is specific to solving problems, whereas, on the other hand, functional fixedness is specific to the object’s use. 

  • Why should we know about the mental sets?

We must educate ourselves about the mental set. First of all, for a better understanding and knowledge of how our cognition works and how our thought processes are carried out. Problem-solving is an essential skill that we need to develop to reach our optimum capacities and carry out through life smoothly and efficiently. Thus, when we are known to poses a tendency that is in the way of progressing smoothly, we need to learn more about it to ensure that we avoid such tendencies and develop problem-solving skills appropriately and correctly. 

By now, you should be aware of the unconscious tendency, known as the mental set, and its advantages and disadvantages. We now know why such a tendency arises and why it must be brought to our attention. Many common questions that arise in people’s minds while reading about the mental set were answered to cultivate a better understanding of the concept. Moreover, we learned about problem-solving and the different mental processes and strategies that circle the concept. 

Mental Set Psychology Definition- A Brief Guide

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