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Three hidden loyalties that prevent us from solving problems

Patrice Georget
Patrice Georget
Lecturer in Psychosociology at the University School of Management IAE Caen

Analysing a prob­lem objec­tive­ly, imag­in­ing ratio­nal solu­tions and choos­ing the most rel­e­vant options implies tak­ing a rea­son­able step back from three psy­cho­log­i­cal “loy­al­ties” or bias­es of which we are not always aware.

#1 Loy­al­ty to the past

Fix­a­tion effect

Have you ever had a fixed idea that pre­vent­ed you from mov­ing for­ward? You try to get rid of it, by think­ing about some­thing else, for exam­ple, but the more you try to stop think­ing about it, the more the idea comes back and blocks your thought process­es. This phe­nom­e­non occurs when men­tal automa­tisms have been inter­nalised. It is true that this allows us to solve recur­rent prob­lems quick­ly and effi­cient­ly, but a prob­lem often has an unex­pect­ed character.

To under­stand the dynam­ics of fixed ideas, let’s start with a very sim­ple prob­lem-solv­ing task: to devise as many solu­tions as pos­si­ble in ten min­utes so that a chick­en egg dropped from a height of 10 metres does not break! Let’s see how the “fix­a­tion” effect of automa­tisms linked to pro­fes­sion­al prac­tices works1. When we put this prob­lem to engi­neers or indus­tri­al design­ers, we find that the lat­ter are more cre­ative: they come up with more ideas, and these ideas are more orig­i­nal. They have an implic­it loy­al­ty to their pro­fes­sion­al back­ground, even though this is irrel­e­vant to the prob­lem to be solved.

Is it pos­si­ble to com­bat these effects? Return­ing to our egg drop prob­lem, the researchers2 pro­vid­ed an exam­ple along with their instruc­tions to help the par­tic­i­pants solve this prob­lem: « you can, for exam­ple, design a para­chute for the egg, » they explained. The result was counter-intu­itive, how­ev­er, since this exam­ple leads to a drop in the num­ber of solu­tions on the one hand and a drop in their orig­i­nal­i­ty on the oth­er. This was true for both engi­neers and designers.

How should we inter­pret these results? Researchers will show that some exam­ples (known as restric­tive exam­ples) reduce cre­ativ­i­ty while oth­ers (expan­sive exam­ples) will increase it. In our sit­u­a­tion, the exam­ple of the para­chute is a restric­tive exam­ple in the sense that it is one of the most clas­sic exam­ples. It is com­mon and has noth­ing orig­i­nal about it since it is usu­al­ly cit­ed spon­ta­neous­ly by the par­tic­i­pants. But, pro­vid­ing it as an exam­ple will acti­vate a fixed idea and lim­it reflec­tion. Where­as expan­sive exam­ples such as « train an eagle to retrieve the egg in flight; freeze the egg » are more unex­pect­ed, they will have the effect of free­ing the mind from the fix­a­tion effect.

In oth­er words, it is pos­si­ble to stim­u­late par­tic­i­pant cre­ativ­i­ty in prob­lem solv­ing, pro­vid­ed that you avoid acti­vat­ing the fix­a­tion effect by not pro­vid­ing clas­si­cal exam­ples and encour­age by pro­vid­ing atyp­i­cal examples.

#2 Loy­al­ty to the present

Emo­tions and imme­di­a­cy bias

There are few sit­u­a­tions in which we solve prob­lems with com­plete peace of mind: stress, fatigue, haste and emo­tions are the dai­ly lot of many pro­fes­sions. What is the weight of these fac­tors in the way we approach a prob­lem? To answer this, let us con­sid­er a well-known prob­lem-solv­ing sit­u­a­tion: the ulti­ma­tum game 34.

Imag­ine a play­er (the « pro­pos­er ») who is giv­en 100 euros. He is tasked with split­ting this amount with a sec­ond play­er. The lat­ter, the « respon­der », must accept the sum or refuse it. If they accept, both play­ers go home with the mon­ey. If they refuse, both play­ers have to give all the mon­ey back and go home emp­ty-hand­ed. The results of course show many vari­a­tions (e.g. accord­ing to anonymi­ty, age), but it can be seen that the pro­posers allo­cate on aver­age 40% of the ini­tial sum to the respon­der. How do respon­ders respond? Well, when the amount offered to them is less than 20% of the amount to be shared, respon­ders refuse the mon­ey, con­sid­er­ing that they have been wronged: they would rather lose and have some­one lose than be treat­ed in a way that is con­sid­ered high­ly unfair.

Based on these results, many researchers56 have manip­u­lat­ed the emo­tion­al states of par­tic­i­pants (in this case the respon­ders). What do the results show? In sit­u­a­tions of intense emo­tion, such as anger or indig­na­tion, respon­dents have a height­ened moral sen­si­tiv­i­ty. They tend to refuse offers that are not close to 50/50. In oth­er words, they would rather lose than see the oth­er per­son get more than them! The res­o­lu­tion of the prob­lem is thus deter­mined more by how they man­age their frus­tra­tion than by the prospect of gain. They want equal­i­ty more than fair­ness and there­fore posi­tion them­selves in a puni­tive pos­ture in rela­tion to the pro­pos­er. It is the imme­di­a­cy bias that gov­erns the way they deal with the sit­u­a­tion, to the detri­ment of the time per­spec­tive of a mon­e­tary reward of the ‘bet­ter than noth­ing’ type.

Think about the unpleas­ant email you receive from a col­league, and how you will deal with it: do you reply back imme­di­ate­ly to vent your frus­tra­tion straight away, even if you regret it lat­er, or do you write a response and save it in drafts to read the next day after you have had time to reflect? It’s a ques­tion of man­ag­ing the present time! Neg­a­tive emo­tion­al states are asso­ci­at­ed with riski­er behav­iours as they oper­ate in an ‘accel­er­at­ed present’ that ignores tomor­row: beware of your­self in the present!

#3 Loy­al­ty to the future

Exces­sive opti­mism and belief in one’s own promises

We try to solve many future prob­lems in the present by mak­ing promis­es we believe in, but which we will not always keep. It is not because we have planned to act in a cer­tain way that we will nec­es­sar­i­ly do so in a giv­en sit­u­a­tion: atti­tudes and good inten­tions are some­times poor pre­dic­tors of behav­iour7. For exam­ple, it is not because we have fol­lowed, under­stood and accept­ed a safe­ty train­ing ses­sion that we will remain vig­i­lant, atten­tive and avoid dan­ger or reduce risk-tak­ing when we have to solve a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem. At issue is the opti­mism bias, which leads us to believe today that we will be less exposed to neg­a­tive events tomor­row than oth­er peo­ple. As a result, we min­imise the dif­fi­cul­ty of future prob­lems and some­times become spe­cial­ists in mak­ing unten­able promis­es: think of com­mit­ments to lose weight, reduce our addic­tions, reg­u­late our emo­tions, com­plete a project on time, etc.

Some of our promis­es escape us because we lack mod­esty about our future selves. In oth­er words, our way of look­ing at tomor­row’s prob­lems today lacks real­ism con­cern­ing the nature of the prob­lem we will face and our abil­i­ty to man­age this future sit­u­a­tion. Of course, it is not about becom­ing pes­simistic, but putting in place coun­ter­mea­sures to « fight back » when required.

This is how Odysseus acts in the Odyssey: Odysseus, known as ‘the wily one’, is aware of the weak­ness­es of the human will and how dif­fi­cult it will be to resist the sirens’ songs if he hears them in the future. All the over-ambi­tious sailors before him fell vic­tim to their own over­con­fi­dence and were there­fore devoured by the sirens. Curi­ous by nature, Odysseus wants to gain access to this unat­tain­able knowl­edge any­way, while dis­trust­ing him­self at the same time. He uses a strat­a­gem to con­trol the per­son he will be in the future by hav­ing him­self tied to the mast of his ship while his sailors put wax balls in their ears to avoid them hear­ing the sirens. Arriv­ing near the island of the mer­maids and seduced by their song, Odysseus begs his com­pan­ions to untie him, but they don’t. This pre­ven­tive strat­e­gy stops him from suc­cumb­ing to the sirens. Odysseus grows thanks to this episode as he now knows bet­ter than any­one how the human soul can be manipulated.

To achieve this, he forced him­self to lim­it his choic­es by exer­cis­ing a con­strain­ing self-con­trol. This is a way of solv­ing prob­lems by antic­i­pat­ing the self! These strate­gies for antic­i­pat­ing future prob­lems are called ‘self-nudg­ing’8910. They help to antic­i­pate impul­sive behav­iour gov­erned by over-opti­mism. You already use gen­tle self-nudg­ing tech­niques to antic­i­pate a future that is dif­fi­cult to con­trol: the pig­gy bank you buy to keep your hol­i­day mon­ey safe, or the promise you pub­licly make to all your friends that you will lose weight by the sum­mer… In con­clu­sion, there are three prices to pay for solv­ing prob­lems with dis­cern­ment: make peace with your past11, be wary of the accel­er­at­ed present, and cen­sor cer­tain behav­iours planned for tomor­row… Con­trol­ling our dark side is far from being a smooth ride!

1Agogué, M., Le Mas­son, P., Dal­mas­so, C., Houdé, O., & Cas­sot­ti, M. (2015). Resist­ing clas­si­cal solu­tions: The cre­ative mind of indus­tri­al design­ers and engi­neers. Psy­chol­o­gy of Aes­thet­ics, Cre­ativ­i­ty, and the Arts, 9(3), 313–318.
2Cas­sot­ti, M., Camar­da, A., Poirel, N., Houdé, O. & Agogué, M. (2016). Fix­a­tion effect in cre­ative ideas gen­er­a­tion: Oppo­site impacts of exam­ple in chil­dren and adults. Think­ing Skills and Cre­ativ­i­ty, Else­vi­er, 19, pp.146 – 152.
3Güth W., Schmit­tberg­er R. et Schwarze B. (1982). An exper­i­men­tal analy­sis of ulti­ma­tum bar­gain­ing. Jour­nal of Eco­nom­ic Behav­ior and Orga­ni­za­tion, 3, 367–388.
4Tis­serand, J.-C. (2016). Le jeu de l’ultimatum, une méta-analyse de 30 années de recherch­es expéri­men­tales. L’Actualité économique, 92 (1–2), 289–314.
5Andrade E. B., & Ariely D. (2009). The endur­ing impact of tran­sient emo­tions on deci­sion mak­ing, Orga­ni­za­tion­al Behav­ior and Human Deci­sion Process­es, 109(1), 1–8.
6Petit, E. (2009). Émo­tions et prise de déci­sion dans le jeu de l’ultimatum. Les Cahiers Inter­na­tionaux de Psy­cholo­gie Sociale, 83, 71–90
7Ajzen, I. (2011). The the­o­ry of planned behav­ior: Reac­tions and reflec­tions. Psy­chol­o­gy & Health, 26, 1113–1127
8Lades, L. K. (2014). Impul­sive con­sump­tion and reflex­ive thought: Nudg­ing eth­i­cal con­sumer behav­ior. Jour­nal of Eco­nom­ic Psychology,41, 114–128.
9Tor­ma, G., Asche­mann-Wiz­el, J. & Thogersen, J. (2018). I nudge myself: Explor­ing ‘self nudg­ing’ strate­gies to dri­ve sus­tain­able con­sump­tion behav­iour. Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Con­sumer Stud­ies, 42, 141–154.
10Rei­ju­la, S., & Her­twig, R. (2020). Self-nudg­ing and the cit­i­zen choice archi­tect. Behav­ioral Pub­lic Pol­i­cy, 1–31.
11Mon­estès, J.L. (2013). Faire la paix avec son passé. Paris, Odile Jacob.


Patrice Georget

Patrice Georget

Lecturer in Psychosociology at the University School of Management IAE Caen

Patrice Georget is a lecturer and researcher in psycho-sociology at the IAE Caen University school of management, which he directed from 2015 to 2020. He has been an industry consultant in diversity management and risk prevention. He has been an expert for the APM (Association Progrès du Management) since 2009 and a GERME speaker.

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