How Mental Sets Prohibit Seeing Solutions to Problems

Tune-Up Your Mental Set

How Mental Sets Prohibit Seeing Solutions to Problems

By: Rachel Lustbader

Updated October 27, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: April Brewer , DBH, LPC

There is a Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson that shows a picture of a boy obstinately pushing determinedly against a door that is labeled «Pull.» To make matters worse, a sign in the foreground proudly proclaims «Midvale School for the Gifted.

» Besides being funny, this particular comic is the converse of a classical example given to illustrate the definition of a mental set.

We will look into how previous situations and stimuli impact our responses in future scenarios, and just how much control we really have over our reactions.


What Is It?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines a mental set as «The tendency to respond to a new problem in the manner used to respond to a previous problem.» This mental set psychology definition is neutral; it neither portrays a mental set as good or bad.

The Neutrality Of It

The reason the above APA mental set definition is so neutrally worded is that it would be incorrect to define «mental set» as one way or the other inherently good or bad. A mental set can go either way, depending on the circumstances or the situation.

For instance, as alluded to above, one of the more common mental set examples is that of person assuming that because a previous door encountered was opened by pulling on it, all subsequent doors will be as well.

This assumption comes in handy when the next door encountered is, in fact, a pull to open the door. In that case, they have learned from experience, something quite positive.

Being able to apply learning from one situation to an identical or related situation demonstrates a high degree of understanding and comprehension. Dare we even say that the person in this situation is gifted.

However, as everyone reading this hopefully has figured out by this time in their lives, not all doors open by pulling. Some doors require one to push, and some cannot be opened at all without a key. A mental set becomes a negative thing when it is too, well, set, and prevents a person from approaching a problem in a new or better way.

In other words, although (in a slightly more positive definition then provided by the APA) the Free Dictionary contends that a mental set can be helpful when it comes to solving new problems, when a mental set is too fixed, its rigidity can prevent a person from seeing that the same rules do not apply to the current issue at hand. A mental set can thereby become an obstacle to solving the present obstacle you are facing when it relies too much on what was true in the past and blinds a person to be open to new possibilities and avenues of attack.


Many people are familiar with the saying, «When one door closes, another opens.» What these same people may be unfamiliar with is the second half of that saying.

which goes as follows: «…but we often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.

» Rather than embracing new opportunities, having too fixed a mental set is most ly to inhibit growth and cause us to fail to see and take advantage of those opportunities.

Interestingly, the above saying is attributed to famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell. It can hardly be a coincidence that it took a famous inventor to come up with a quote that. After all, what are inventors but people who are constantly seeking new solutions to old problems?

The ability of our brains to conceive of a mental set is helpful.

Imagine what life would be if we had to constantly re-learn solutions to problems we had already faced, constantly being befuddled by basic processes and interactions we'd struggled through countless times.

Talk about reinventing the wheel! What if every time you tied your shoe, you had to relearn how? What if riding a bike wasn't «riding a bike,» but something you had to relearn every time?

If you had to relearn the concept of addition every time you came across a problem 1 + 1, you'd never get to multiplication, and you could forget about complex mathematics — or the marvels of science and technology that stem from such concepts. So it's not at all a bad thing that mental sets exist. It's a very good thing that our minds can recognize patterns in the situations we encounter. The existence of the mental set can at times make our lives so much easier.

However, where would we be if we could not step outside those mental sets when necessary? Imagine a world with no innovation, no inventions, no dreamers to conceive of newer, better ways of doing things than the ways things had always been done.

We'd all still be living in caves, living a hunter-gatherer existence and with no one Alexander Graham Bell to come along; we'd certainly never have been fortunate enough to receive the gift of the invention of the telephone, or the internet which makes it possible for you to read this page.

Imagine if we lived in a world where, when faced with a new experience, we couldn't adapt?

The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible says that «Everything has its time and place.

» Ecclesiastes doesn't specifically mention a well-formed mental set, but such a mindset is certainly no exception to the rule.

The existence of a mental set only becomes a problem when it doesn't keep its appropriate time and place. When a mental set is too set, it turns into an obstruction rather than a means to a solution.

The Psychology Connection

We all have mental sets that serve a useful purpose in our lives. And we all, at one time or another, get trapped by our default mental sets. We see what we expect to see and not what is there, or the possibilities that are open to us.

We've all had moments where an obvious solution escaped us, call it a fixed mental set, a mental block, or a senior moment. And usually, we get past it. We open our eyes, and there's our nose, right in front of our face.

Or someone, laughing uproariously, points it out, taking advantage of the moment to tweet about it, or if pictures are available, post them on Instagram. We call it an «off» moment and move on.

Sometimes, though, a mental set becomes not just a one-off occurrence but a consistent malaise, negativity that disables our ability to move past it. Problems seem insurmountable because we have somehow lost our ability to find solutions that seem workable.

«Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depressed Individuals Improves Suppression of Irrelevant Mental-Sets,» an article by authors Jonathan Greenberg, Benjamin G. Shapero, David Mischoulon, and Sara W.

Lazar, cites several studies that indicate that problems with disassociating yourself from unproductive mental sets can be linked to depression.

They researched the effect of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), a type of cognitive therapy, and found that it was helpful in helping study participants to reduce their negative mental sets. In keeping with their expectations, reducing the negative mental sets had the desired result of also reducing the associated symptoms of depression the study participants had been experiencing.

Does Yours Need A Tune-Up?

There's a (hopefully) urban legend about a lady who called Triple-A, from a parking lot. «I'm having trouble getting into my car,» the woman complained. «The battery on my key fob died, and the door won't open.

» The dumbfounded Triple-A representative took a breath, held in his laughter, and asked, «Ma'am, have you tried using the key?» The lady responded «Oh. Oops.

» She'd become so used to the convenience of being able to open her car door remotely that she'd forgotten another way existed.

It never even occurred to her to consider that though it might be regressing way back to the stone age, she could still open her car door manually. In other words, her mental funk was not only extremely hilarious but also a wonderful example of a person locked into an unproductive mental set.


A moment or two pushing on the «pull» door or forgetting that you can regress to ancient times and use a key to open a car door is not a sign of some serious lurking underlying problem.

However, ever heard someone being referred to as «too set in their ways»? Take it how you , but the description isn't usually meant as a compliment.

If you fear that this unfortunate description aptly describes you, that you are maybe becoming a little too rigid in your thinking, and it's impacting the decisions you make, and the solutions you take advantage of than seeking out some objective help might be just the thing. To learn more in a non-threatening way, a good place to start is here at

After all, whoever came up with internet therapy certainly wasn't bound to an unchanging mental set.

Many people are familiar with the saying, «When one door closes, another opens.» What these same people may be unfamiliar with is the second half of that saying.

which goes as follows: «…but we often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.

» Rather than embracing new opportunities, having too fixed a mental set is most ly to inhibit growth and cause us to fail to see and take advantage of those opportunities.

Interestingly, the above saying is attributed to famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell. It can hardly be a coincidence that it took a famous inventor to come up with a quote that. After all, what are inventors but people who are constantly seeking new solutions to old problems?


Mental set psychology definition (A Brief Guide)

How Mental Sets Prohibit Seeing Solutions to Problems

In this guide, we will discuss “Mental set psychology definition” and why mental sets make it difficult to solve problems. Also, we will discuss a specific type of mental set called functional fixedness and some useful steps when approaching and solving a problem.

Mental set psychology definition

The definition of mental set in psychology is the tendency our brain has to stick with the most familiar solution to a problem ignoring all the other alternatives. This tendency is normally and ly driven by previous experiences or knowledge (long-term mental set) or could also be a temporary by-product of procedural training (short-term mental set).

This tendency of choosing the most familiar or evident solution to a certain problem can also be an automatic process.

Moreover, if we want a more ‘technical’ definition, according to the American Psychological Dictionary, mental set is:

“A temporary readiness to perform certain psychological functions that influences the response to a situation or stimulus, such as the tendency to apply a previously successful technique in solving a new problem. It is often determined by instructions but need not be. Essentially synonymous with the older term Einstellung, mental set is the embodiment of the earlier concepts of Aufgabe and determining tendency.”

The meaning of the word ‘mental set’ is not only associated with fixating on a strategy that has worked before or that normally works to solve a particular problem, there is more to it.

The Encyclopedia Britannica indicates how a mental set is an ‘obstacle’ to effective thinking alongside functional fixedness, stereotypes, and negative transfer.

Concepts that we will see more in depth later on. 

As human beings we have this unconscious tendency to approach problems in a particular way and if we think about it for a minute or two, we might find many examples. Believe it or not our brain is working non-stop solving problems all day, from ‘What should I wear today?’ to ‘Where did I put the keys of the car’ to ‘ I am running late for work, what is the best route at this time?’.

Why do mental sets make it difficult to solve problems?

When we face a problem that we need to solve, our brain often uses solutions that have worked previously. On occasion, this can be very useful because it allows us to quickly come up with solutions and solved problems. However, getting used to solving problems the same way every time can make it difficult to find other strategies or new ways of solving problems. 

According to Kendra Cherry,  “These mental sets can sometimes lead to rigid thinking and can create difficulties in the problem-solving process. While in many cases we can use our past experiences to help solve the issues we face, it can make it difficult to see novel or creative ways of fixing current problems.”

For example, let’s think about a problem or situation where you have to study for a test.

What you normally do is read the book and learn everything by heart because that is how you have been passing the tests for all of your exams but what if instead of learning everything by memory you had to face a different type of test, one you didn’t actually prepare for analysing and describing cases and what would you do in that scenario. Here, you would struggle a lot because your experience has shown you that reading from the books and learning everything by memory was the correct way to go so you didn’t consider other options.

Functional fixedness: A type of mental set

If you remember, we talked about the ‘obstacles’ to effective thinking such as functional fixedness. This is considered an specific type of mental set which involves being only able to see solutions using objects as they are originally meant to work.  

For instance, let’s talk about one of the most common and useful examples. Think about a coin for a minute and you will immediately associate the use of the coin with being used as currency to buy things you need or want. Imagine if every time you saw a coin you had to figure out what it was and what it is used for as if it was the first time you encountered a coin. 

However, we are very fortunate because our minds are designed in a way we get to make shortcuts and memories from our experiences in order to retrieve this information later which tells us exactly what a coin is and what we can use it for. Mental shortcuts are also known by the term heuristics in psychology, however, sometimes heuristics can lead to cognitive bias.

Imagine you are sitting down in your office at work and you noticed there is a loose screw in your desk.

You don’t have a screwdriver at hand and calling maintenance can take ages, so what can you do? If you would to get a screwdriver or wait for maintenance, that is your call but there is something else you can do, what is it? You may wonder.

Well, you can use the coin from our example to tighten the screw.  Now, we have thought of other ways to use a coin and solve the problem. 

Steps to problem-solving

Sometimes we are too overwhelmed by problems that it is not clear what we should do or is not as easy to come up with the solution, especially when we have tried what usually works best or worked in the past. We normally don’t pay much attention to the steps involved in problem solving but here we will see one by one:

  • Identifying the problem. The more specific we are when identifying the problem the better since it tells us exactly where to begin.
  • Problem definition. In this step we need to determine the nature of the problem and confront it. 
  • Resource allocation. After we have defined our problem, we need to determine the kind and extent of resources we will dedicate to our preferred choice.
  • Problem representation. Here, we need to organize the information needed to solve the problem. 
  • Strategy construction. Having determined our criteria, we need to decide how to combine or give priority to one of them. 
  • Monitoring. In this step, we assess whether our problem is being solved as intended or if the possible solution needs to get modified or changed. 
  • Evaluation. Here we evaluate whether the problem was solved successfully or we may need to go back to the beginning and start all over again until we are satisfied.  

Other ways of solving a problem

The problem solving strategy we just mentioned is not the only way. According to ‘Lumen Learning’ here are other ways of approaching and solving a problem:

  • Abstraction: solving the problem in a model of the system before applying it to the real system.
  • Analogy: using a solution for a similar problem.
  • Brainstorming: suggesting a large number of solutions and developing them until the best is found.
  • Divide and conquer: breaking down a large, complex problem into smaller, solvable problems.
  • Hypothesis testing: assuming a possible explanation to the problem and trying to prove (or, in some contexts, disprove) the assumption.
  • Lateral thinking: approaching solutions indirectly and creatively.
  • Means-ends analysis: choosing an action at each step to move closer to the goal.
  • Morphological analysis: assessing the output and interactions of an entire system.
  • Proof: try to prove that the problem cannot be solved. The point where the proof fails will be the starting point for solving it.
  • Reduction: transforming the problem into another problem for which solutions exist.
  • Root-cause analysis: identifying the cause of a problem.
  • Trial and error: testing possible solutions until the right one is found.

Why is this blog about Mental set psychology definition important?

Understanding what mental sets are and how they seem to become an obstacle in effective thinking is very important.

Sometimes we ask ourselves why we keep doing the same thing over and over again without no positive results or how we used to handle things a specific way now it seems obsolete.

Here we need to use cognitive flexibility to find different solutions to all sorts of problems.

There are many ways of solving a problem and we have mentioned a few. Think about a problem you may have and start following the steps to see how many alternatives you have for the same problem and how to start incorporating this on a daily basis.

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Side Note: I have tried and tested various products and services to help with my anxiety and depression. See my top recommendations here, as well as a full list of all products and services our team has tested for various mental health conditions and general wellness.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Mental set psychology definition

A mental set according to psychology is the tendency to only see solutions that have worked previously, in the past. This type of fixed way of thinking can make it difficult to come up with new solutions and can stop the problem-solving process. Because of the mental set you may have, it makes it very difficult for you to see a simpler solution to a problem.

Mental sets can affect people’s perception where they tend to interpret situations only seeing what they want to see. A perceptual set or perceptual expectancy, makes an individual to be predisposed to perceive things a certain way. 

Mental sets are used by humans because they allow previous knowledge to be used again in certain situations where we could use it to our advantage. However, sometimes the same previous knowledge applied to a new situation won’t guarantee being right or having leverage. 

The difference between functional fixedness and mental set is that the first is when the intended purpose of an object hinders a person’s ability to see its potential other uses and the second is related to the unconscious tendency to approach a problem in a particula (known or familiar) way.

An example of functional fixedness in psychology is when we see an object such as a coin and we immediately think about how coins are meant to be used to buy things.

However, if one day you face the problem of having to tighten a screw but you don’t have a screwdriver, only a coin.

Functional fixedness will tell you how the coin is only meant to be used to buy or get things but the truth is you could have solved your problem using that same coin as a screwdriver. 

References “Mental Set”

Cherry, K. (2020, May.) How Mental Sets Prohibit Seeing Solutions to Problems. Retrieved from “Problem Solving”

W. Edgar Vinacke, D.E. Berlyne and Others (See All Contributors) (2008, May.) Topic: Thought. Retrieved from

Let us know if you d the post. That’s the only way we can improve.


Добавить комментарий

;-) :| :x :twisted: :smile: :shock: :sad: :roll: :razz: :oops: :o :mrgreen: :lol: :idea: :grin: :evil: :cry: :cool: :arrow: :???: :?: :!: