Maslow’s Hammer: Understanding The Einstellung Effect

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Understanding Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer was named after prominent psychologist Abraham Maslow, who said “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

In other words, a hammer is not the most appropriate tool in every situation. But this does not stop a person (armed only with a hammer) from trying to solve different problems with the same solution. What’s more, the person with a hammer may not consider other options and resist looking for a better alternative.

Maslow’s Hammer is a solution-based heuristic, otherwise known as a mental shortcut. Individuals tend to use familiar tools to get what they want without first determining if the tool is right for the job. This is also true of a newly acquired skill, where the individual tends to believe the skill can be applied almost anywhere.

In business, Maslow’s Hammer can manifest in leaders who persist with ineffective leadership styles that no longer work in the present environment. It is also occupation-specific. For example, surgeons believe surgery is the best choice. Psychiatrists believe medication is optimal, while psychologists believe in cognitive behavioral therapy above anything else.

Why does Maslow’s Hammer occur?

To explain the mechanisms behind Maslow’s Hammer, consider these two factors:

  1. Déformation professionnelle – a French term describing a cognitive bias where people tend to view the world through the lens of their profession. Although we touched on this in the previous section, it’s important to note that individuals with a certain area of expertise also try to apply their specific skill-sets to non-related contexts.
  2. Einstellung effect – another cognitive bias from the German word for “attitude”. This effect explains why past experiences prevent the individual from reaching the best solution to a current problem. While prior problem-solving experience may be relevant to a current problem, there are no guarantees. It is always better to approach a problem objectively and from multiple angles.

Avoiding Maslow’s Hammer

Avoiding Maslow’s Hammer means developing the ability to recognize cognitive biases in ourselves and other people.

Here are some simple ideas:

  • Observe the tendencies of others – look for instances where a trusted professional offers a narrow range of solutions based on their expertise.
  • Observe your own tendencies – how many times have you tried to fit a square peg into a round hole? Journal your responses and note how you might do better next time.
  • Expand your skillset – if you are also a professional, broaden your perspectives by attending industry seminars or training sessions. What are the best practices in your field and how many disciplines do these practices incorporate?
  • Ask a friend – friends, family, and colleagues are often the best judge of whether we suffer from Maslow’s Hammer. Some people may have difficulty in posing these questions to others for fear of reprisal, but the rewards are worth it.

Maslow’s Hammer In The Business World

The tendency to overuse tools and frameworks in the business world is pretty common. There are several reasons for that. One example is how entrepreneurs might use a tool like the business plan in the wrong context or understand why they are using it. For instance, the business plan might be a great tool to pitch to investors. However, not necessarily to execute a business strategy.

Indeed, a business plan might contain many assumptions, which are fine as investors want to understand how an entrepreneur reasons in terms of market size. However, these assumptions might be too risky when it comes to execution. For instance, an entrepreneur might assume that a business might work in several contexts in a business plan, but before going there, these need to be tested.

Think, for instance, what would have happened if Amazon didn’t start to execute from books and instead would have tried to expand all over the places too quickly (like Webvan did). Thus, it’s critical to be tool and framework agnostic in the business world and understand that different tools have different purposes.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was developed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow. His hierarchy, often depicted in the shape of a pyramid, helped explain his research on basic human needs and desires. In marketing, the hierarchy (and its basis in psychology) can be used to market to specific groups of people based on their similarly specific needs, desires, and resultant actions.

Key takeaways:

  • Maslow’s Hammer is a solution heuristic causing an individual to have an over-reliance on a single tool for many different problems. It was first mentioned by prominent psychologist Abraham Maslow.
  • Maslow’s Hammer is caused by a couple of cognitive biases. The first involves individuals trying to solve problems through the lens of their specific skillset. The second bias argues that individuals will default to solving current problems based on how they solved past problems.
  • Maslow’s Hammer can be avoided by developing an awareness of cognitive biases at play in ourselves and others. Broadening one’s personal and professional perspectives is also very effective.

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