i’m living in my own private einstellung

i’m giving a lecture at a conference in a few weeks and i’ll be talking about cognitive sets and the einstellung effect, among other things.

while on my way in to school yesterday i found that my usual means of transport, the light rail, wasn’t running because a tree had fallen on the tracks.

i quickly ran to a bus stop and decided to get off the bus a few blocks early so that i could collect my thoughts before class while i walked.

on the way i got to a very busy street at rush hour and saw a red, do not walk sign in front of me, so i waited. traffic was moving all around me as i stood on the corner, staring carefully at the walk signals. when the traffic light changed the walk icon lit up, i looked both ways, and i headed across the street, about ten feet in a car came to a screeching halt to my left – had it kept going it would have hit me – i was shocked that someone would so brazenly run a light.

i got the the mediant and noticed that the traffic going the other way seemed to be going way too fast approaching the intersection, so i slowly started to cross, keeping my eyes fixed to the oncoming traffic, looking for a sign that they would obey the laws of the road and stop so that i could pass – they didn’t, what the fuck?!

i double checked the walk light, and, sure enough, it was clearly my turn to go – then i looked up at the traffic lights and realized that the walk lights WERE NOT synchronized with the traffic lights. in all my time walking around cities i can’t remember ever seeing that before.

when i got across i called the cops to let them know, and then continued to class, rattled at the thought of how easily i could have been flattened, and how stupid i must have seemed to the motorists who had to slam on their brakes to avoid some idiot (me) wandering into oncoming traffic…

when i got to school we started class and i said some things about cognitive sets, the einstellung effect, and tried to explain how luchins’ water-jar experiment was an excellent example of cognitive sets in action.

i could see that the students’ eyes were glazing over at my explanation and i took a breath to figure out another, more easily accessible, example…

suddenly my traffic incident came to mind and i realized that it was a fine example of a cognitive set – i had been conditioned over time to solve the problem of crossing the street using a specific arrangement of observations and symbols. when those observations and symbols were inverted i literally didn’t notice, and applied my previous set to the different circumstances at hand, and was almost run over.

i had also been wondering about how to illustrate a link between cognitive sets and inattentional blindness, and, once again, fate and chance had provided me with an excellent example.

here’s an interesting video and, if you scroll down, some analysis of change blindness. for the full effect, watch the top video first without reading the article.