Mental set psychology definition (A Brief Guide)

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 likely 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 like 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 like 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!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Mental set psychology definition

What is mental set according to psychology?

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.

How does mental set affect people’s perception?

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. 

Why are mental sets used by humans?

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. 

What is the difference between functional Fixedness and mental set?

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.

What is an example of functional Fixedness in psychology?

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

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