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).

Definition“Maslow’s Hammer” is a cognitive bias that refers to the tendency to rely excessively on a familiar tool, method, or approach when addressing a problem, even when it may not be the most appropriate solution. It is based on Abraham Maslow’s quote, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Process1. Identification of a problem or challenge. 2. Defaulting to a familiar tool, method, or approach. 3. Application of the familiar solution to the problem without considering alternatives.
Metrics– Frequency of using the same tool or approach. – Number of cases where a more suitable solution was available but not considered.
Benefits– Efficiency and speed in decision-making. – Comfort and familiarity in using a known solution.
Drawbacks– Limited problem-solving flexibility. – Ineffective solutions due to a narrow focus. – Missed opportunities for more suitable approaches. – Resistance to change or new ideas.
ApplicationsAwareness of “Maslow’s Hammer” can lead to more effective problem-solving by encouraging individuals to explore diverse tools and approaches, fostering innovation and adaptability.
Use Cases1. Technology: Selecting the same programming language for all software development projects without considering project requirements. 2. Management: Applying the same management style to diverse teams without considering individual needs.
Examples1. A software developer always using the same programming language for all projects, regardless of project requirements. 2. A manager consistently applying the same management style to diverse teams without considering individual needs. 3. A healthcare professional exclusively relying on one treatment method for various patient conditions.

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:

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.

Einstellung effect

Another cognitive bias from the German word for “attitude.”

This effect explains why past experiences prevent the individual from finding the best solution to a 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

Identification of a problem or challengeRecognize the existence of a problem, challenge, or decision that requires a solution or action.
Defaulting to a familiar tool, method, or approachIn response to the identified problem, automatically resort to a familiar tool, method, or approach that has been used in the past or is well-known.
Application of the familiar solution to the problem without considering alternativesApply the chosen familiar solution to address the problem without thoroughly exploring or considering alternative tools, methods, or approaches that might be more suitable.

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.

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.

Key Highlights

  • Definition: Maslow’s Hammer, also known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias in which individuals over-rely on a familiar tool to solve various problems, even when the tool is not the most appropriate or effective solution.
  • Origin: The term “Maslow’s Hammer” is inspired by Abraham Maslow’s quote, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
  • Heuristic: This bias arises as a solution-based heuristic, where individuals use familiar tools without considering whether they are suitable for the specific problem at hand.
  • Déformation Professionnelle: This French term refers to the cognitive bias of viewing the world through the lens of one’s profession. Individuals tend to apply their specific skills to unrelated contexts, contributing to Maslow’s Hammer.
  • Einstellung Effect: This bias occurs when past experiences hinder individuals from finding the best solution to a problem. While prior problem-solving experiences may be relevant, they might not always be the optimal approach.
  • Avoidance Strategies:
    1. Observation: Observe instances where professionals offer limited solutions based on their expertise and recognize this tendency.
    2. Self-Reflection: Recognize times when you’ve attempted to solve problems with inappropriate tools. Journal your experiences and learn from them.
    3. Skill Expansion: Broaden your skillset by attending seminars or training sessions, and incorporate practices from other disciplines.
    4. Seek Feedback: Friends, family, and colleagues can provide insights into whether you’re falling into the trap of Maslow’s Hammer.
  • Application in Business: Maslow’s Hammer is common in the business world. Entrepreneurs might misuse tools like business plans, using them for purposes other than intended. For instance, a business plan may be suitable for investor pitches, but not necessarily for executing a business strategy.
  • Tool Agnosticism: To avoid Maslow’s Hammer in business, it’s crucial to be tool and framework agnostic. Different tools serve different purposes, and understanding when and how to use them appropriately is essential.

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.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Lindy Effect

The Lindy Effect is a theory about the ageing of non-perishable things, like technology or ideas. Popularized by author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the Lindy Effect states that non-perishable things like technology age – linearly – in reverse. Therefore, the older an idea or a technology, the same will be its life expectancy.


Antifragility was first coined as a term by author, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, and randomness. Therefore, Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Where a fragile thing breaks up to volatility; a robust thing resists volatility. An antifragile thing gets stronger from volatility (provided the level of stressors and randomness doesn’t pass a certain threshold).

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Maslow’s Hammer

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).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law is named after British monetary policy theorist and economist Charles Goodhart. Speaking at a conference in Sydney in 1975, Goodhart said that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. This observation was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and it become a guiding principle for the semiconductor industry and has had far-reaching implications for technology as a whole.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Value Migration

Value migration was first described by author Adrian Slywotzky in his 1996 book Value Migration – How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition. Value migration is the transferal of value-creating forces from outdated business models to something better able to satisfy consumer demands.

Bye-Now Effect

The bye-now effect describes the tendency for consumers to think of the word “buy” when they read the word “bye”. In a study that tracked diners at a name-your-own-price restaurant, each diner was asked to read one of two phrases before ordering their meal. The first phrase, “so long”, resulted in diners paying an average of $32 per meal. But when diners recited the phrase “bye bye” before ordering, the average price per meal rose to $45.


Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.


A stereotype is a fixed and over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people. These beliefs are based on the false assumption that certain characteristics are common to every individual residing in that group. Many stereotypes have a long and sometimes controversial history and are a direct consequence of various political, social, or economic events. Stereotyping is the process of making assumptions about a person or group of people based on various attributes, including gender, race, religion, or physical traits.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences was first mentioned by British philosopher John Locke when writing to parliament about the unintended effects of interest rate rises. However, it was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton who looked at unexpected, unanticipated, and unintended consequences and their impact on society.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational factors.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias describes a tendency to evaluate a decision based on its outcome and not on the process by which the decision was reached. In other words, the quality of a decision is only determined once the outcome is known. Outcome bias occurs when a decision is based on the outcome of previous events without regard for how those events developed.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the tendency for people to perceive past events as more predictable than they actually were. The result of a presidential election, for example, seems more obvious when the winner is announced. The same can also be said for the avid sports fan who predicted the correct outcome of a match regardless of whether their team won or lost. Hindsight bias, therefore, is the tendency for an individual to convince themselves that they accurately predicted an event before it happened.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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