Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Cognitive entrenchment

Cognitive entrenchment:
What is cognitive entrenchment and how can it be avoided?


What is the most dangerous phrase in the English language? For Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (Hopper) it was, "we've always done it this way". Hopper was a U.S. Naval Officer and an early computer programmer—[grammar?]she is often referred to as the ‘mother of computing’. Hopper vehemently believed in not getting stuck in one's views. As a constant reminder, she owned a clock that ran backwards to reinforce that approaches from the past can be changed in the future (Clubb, 2021). Hopper was undoubtedly aware of the dangers of cognitive entrenchment.

Cognitive entrenchment (entrenchment) is defined as a high level of stability in one's domain schemas (Dane, 2010). Put simply, entrenchment occurs when experienced groups or individuals become rigid in their thinking and revert to what they know best. Entrenchment appears to stem from increasing expertise. Research suggests that as individuals acquire expertise, they can become inflexible in certain aspects of their domain. For example, when problem solving, experts often fail to recognise the optimal solution to a problem when a less optimal, but more familiar, solution is available. Additionally, experts often fail to appropriately adapt their communication style when teaching beginners a new task. As such, entrenchment has been shown to have negative outcomes for businesses and individuals, including experts becoming outdated overtime.

So, why is this the case and how do you reduce Cognitive Entrenchment? This chapter answers this question and help better understand Cognitive Entrenchment. First, it discusses expertise and its strong relationship with entrenchment, before it examines the important role schemas undoubtedly play in entrenchment. It then investigates the negative impact of Cognitive Entrenchment on problem-solving (specifically fixation and the Einstellung Effect and knowledge sharing. Lastly, it discusses simple techniques individuals can use to adapt their style and reduce the impact of Cognitive Entrenchment.

Cognitive Entrenchment is a large subject that affects many areas of day-to-day living. This includes job performance, creativity, problem-solving, adaptability, reflective practices, and sociability.


Expertise is the high level of skill or knowledge within a particular field (Necka & Kubik, 2012). As children we learn language, social norms and values from our parents. As we develop further, we build on this knowledge from school, university and the workforce. Some individuals have an interest or aptitude for a particular field—maths, carpentry, coding—and may begin to specialise. With prolonged exposure and practice, they can develop superior knowledge and become experts (Armougum, Gaston-Bellegarde, Joie-La Marle & Piolino, 2020).

Since the beginning of Western Civilisation[spelling?], superior knowledge and expertise have been highly sort[spelling?] after. This is because expert knowledge helps to educate others and improves the decision-making of apprentices. In turn, this increases the knowledge base in the domain and improves overall outcomes (Ericsson, Hoffman, Kozbelt & Williams, 2018). Additionally, experts tend to show increased job performance, effective decision-making skills and superior domain-relevant memory skills. For example, when experts are briefly shown stimuli, they display a remarkable ability to recall that stimulus later (Bilalić, McLeod & Gobet, 2009). Due to the correlation between expertise, effective decision-making and higher job performance, many studies have been conducted on this subject. However, not all yield the positive results that you might imagine.

Research suggests that with expertise comes [missing something?] particular limitations. These limitations relate to an expert’s inflexibility regarding their domain; including difficulty viewing problems from other perspectives and difficulty adapting to new rules or conditions. As such, these findings suggest that there may in fact be a trade-off with expertise. Specifically, as expertise is acquired, those experts become inflexible in their thoughts and behaviours in regard to their favoured domain (Dane, 2010). This is Cognitive Entrenchment in action.

A great example of this is the professional sports coach, whereby coaches begin to lose their knack after 10–15 years at the top. It is argued that one of the main reasons for this decline is Cognitive Entrenchment. The coach becomes set in their training methods and fixated on particular plays (Phan & Ngu, 2021) (Grech, 2020). For example, they may become unwilling or unable to adapt to a new football rule, a new playing style, a new star player, or if the other team begins to predict their plays. This is a real-world example of cognitive entrenchment—so why can’t the coach easily change their method? Well, undoubtedly schemas also play a role.


Schemas are cognitive frameworks that represent organised knowledge about a concept, event or domain, which an individual uses to make sense of external stimuli and guide their behaviour (Armougum et al., 2020). Based on limited information, these frameworks allow us to quickly make sense of situations, people, events and locations and respond appropriately (Vaughan & Hogg, 2013). Have you ever wondered how you know that a dog, which you have never met before, is in fact a dog—not a cat or rabbit? Well, the answer is that you have a schema for dogs based on your previous experiences with other dogs. Using stored information, your schema quickly fills in the missing details to help you process a situation. For example, your schema for dogs might be that they have four legs, are furry, bark, have a tail and are loyal. When you see the new animal your schema's criteria for dogs allows you to quickly categorise the creature as a dog.

In a complex world, schemas help us to interact efficiently as they impart a sense of order, structure and coherence in the chaos. Schemas are particularly hard to change as people are generally resistant to new information that undermines a schema—they tend to disregard or make attempts to reinterpret it. For example, in the Ross, Lepper & Hubbard (1975) study, researchers asked participants to make socially perceptive judgments about other individuals. The participants visually inspected each other and then based on their first impressions, they were asked to decide if they thought the individual would make good or poor decisions in a test. The participants were then informed that their initial conclusions (based purely on visual impressions) were completely incorrect. However, on subsequent rounds of testing, participants generally maintained their original impressions, thereby denying the new information. The study proposed that the perceiver does not reinterpret or reattribute their original impression-relevant data, despite the original bias being discredited. Once the impression has been inscribed, new evidence becomes independent from their coding scheme and its impact ceases to affect the validity of the schema (Ross et. al., 1975).

In a real-world example, lawyers are known to intentionally introduce evidence they know will be ruled "inadmissible" by the judge as a tactic. While the judge will ask the jury to disregard the evidence this is not possible, it will inevitably contribute to the juror's development of a schema and either consciously or unconsciously affect their decision making (Steblay, Hosch, Culhane & McWethy, 2006). These examples help us to understand how schemas aid Cognitive Entrenchment—as pre-saved information and solutions prevent new ways of doing things and solutions from being sought.  However, it is thought to be even harder for experts to override schemas.

When considering an expert's schema in their chosen field, there appear to be two distinct differences between novices and experts. Experts tend to have larger and more detailed schemas than novices, and they tend to have a larger amount of interrelationships than novice schemas. The combination of larger schemas, and higher interrelationships within their schemas, leads to more complex overall domain schemas (Dane, 2010). Put simply, expert schemas are richer, more detailed and more accurate when compared to novices' schemas—and therefore may be even harder to change. Research suggests that entrenchment appears to stem from increasing expertise—as individuals acquire expertise, they can become inflexible in certain aspects of their domain (Dane, 2010). This can limit their ability to solve problems and share their expert knowledge with others.

Impacts of Cognitive Entrenchment

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Problem Solving

So, how does expert knowledge ultimately alter one’s ability to solve problems? Problem-solving is the act of finding a solution to a difficult or complex issue (Yılmaz, Yel & Griffiths, 2022). Experts tend to be effective problem solvers—yet they are particularly prone to fixation. In problem-solving, fixation refers to the blind adherence to a set of ideas or concepts (Jansson & Smith, 1991). Fixation can result in an inability the solve a problem that requires a new perspective. In a famous study (Duncker, 1945), participants failed to recognise the functional value of a box as a tool, because they were fixated on the idea that it was only a container for the items in the test (Dane, 2010).

One commonly demonstrated occurrence of fixation, in regard to expert problem-solving, is known as the Einstellung Effect Paradigm. The Einstellung Effect is when the expert problem solver is unable to choose the less familiar (but more optimal) solution, over the familiar (but non-optimal) solution (Bilalić, McLeod & Gobet, 2008). Thus, the expert's pre-existing knowledge and schemas impede their ability to reach the optimal solution to the problem. The effect suggests that once expertise is gained the more likely you are to be influenced by it, instead of evaluating each problem on its own merits.

In Bilalić et al.'s, (2008) study, [grammar?] they examined the problem-solving flexibility and inflexibility in expert and super-expert chess players using the Einstellung Effect Paradigm. The chess players were asked to solve a familiar problem with a non-optimal solution and a less familiar problem with an optimal solution. The results showed that the more familiar (non-optimal) solution induced the largest Einstellung Effect on the expert chess players. Thereby, significantly reducing the expert chess players' problem-solving skills[grammar?]. The expert chess players tended to take the well-worn path over the new and quicker path, indicating a level of inflexibility in their problem-solving skills. It's worth noting, the Einstellung Effect did not seem to impact the super-experts problem-solving skills, they were able to maintain control over their performance, noticing and taking into account even the smaller and seemingly irrelevant details.

Knowledge Sharing

An important role experts play in the workforce (and wider society) is sharing knowledge and teaching beginners complex tasks. However, training new staff is difficult and may require skills outside the expert's field of expertise. When training staff, experts need the ability to adapt their perspective and communication style to that of a less knowledgeable person. For example, experts should use fewer specialised terms, explain issues in more detail and use more illustrative examples (Emhardt, Kok, Jarodzka, Brand, Drumm & Gog, 2020).

While you may think that an expert would be well-positioned to convey their superior knowledge and skill to another person, research indicates that experts have trouble instructing novices. Experts tend to articulate their superior knowledge at a more advanced or abstract level than the novice can easily comprehend. Or, they are unable to adjust their presentation skills to a level appropriate for the learner (Hinds, Patterson & Pfeffer, 2001).

During one study, researchers compared experts to beginners when instructing first-time users on an electronic wiring task (Hinds et al., 2001). They proposed that experts, as compared to beginners, will use more abstract language and fewer concrete statements. Also, those experts were more likely to use advanced concepts when instructing novices. Lastly, these factors would contribute to those instructed by beginners performing better than those instructed by experts. Consistent with the first two hypotheses, the results indicated that experts did communicate differently from beginners. Experts used more abstract and advanced language and less concrete statements when instructing. This led to novices getting fewer specific details to help guide their performance. For example, properly connecting the wires to the spring coil was required to make the electronic connection complete. Yet, only 9 percent of experts, compared to 90 percent of beginners, included this in their instructions. Lastly, the novices following expert instructions tended to make more errors and took more time to complete the task. Thus, the research concluded that experts tend to have a bias toward the abstract and their superior knowledge, making it difficult for novices to interpret. A contributing factor in this tendency is Cognitive Entrenchment, with experts failing to appropriately adapt their communication style when teaching beginners a new task. This can lead to negative outcomes for businesses and individuals and reduce the overall knowledge base of their field.

Strategies and Solutions

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Interleaving Problem-Solving Strategies

Knowing that fixation and the Einstellung Effect can induce entrenchment and inflexibility in problem-solving, can this be remedied? One proposed idea is the practice of ‘interleaving’, whereby you switch your intention between ongoing tasks, which is thought to improve learning, problem-solving, memory and retention. While, conversely, block training involves resolving one issue before moving onto another[grammar?]. In problem-solving, interleaving is said to positively affect the generation of new ideas, and increase the understanding of the general rules, by letting the issues and solutions percolate in the mind before you are forced to solve them. Allowing yourself time to be flexible and explore different paths that previously looked futile is a way to discover new dimensions of a problem (Foster, Mueller, Dunlosky & Finkenthal, 2022).  

In another study, researchers compared the effect of interleaved problem-solving against block-solving strategies (Taylor & Rohrer, 2010). In the study, fourth-grade children were asked to solve a series of mathematical problems. All of the children received the same tutorial information, practice problems and test questions. However, the children were randomly assigned to either block or interleaved strategy practice sessions. At the end of the study, students were tested and those that[grammar?] used the interleaving strategy outperformed the block-trained students by nearly double (77 percent versus 38 percent). It is worth noting that the sample size was small allowing for a potential sample size error and the students were not experts in mathematics, so further research on the effect of interleaving practice on expert problem-solving is required. That said, the positive impact of the interleaving problem-solving approach is clear. Thus, allowing yourself some space and time to percolate on a difficult issue may provide a unique insight into how to address it.


Collaboration and seeking input from others are also methods for breaking out of Cognitive Entrenchment. Collaboration is the action of working with someone or a group to produce or accomplish something (Hong, Yazejian, Guss,  Stein,  Connors, Horm & Kainz, 2019). Collaborative problem-solving is becoming an increasingly important tool, recognised as an efficient, effective and innovative way to approach problems (Graesser, Fiore, Greiff, Andrews-Todd, Foltz & Hesse, 2018). Collaboration can help mitigate Cognitive Entrenchment due to the nature of the collaborative process. From a cognitive perspective, the expert is required to define the problem, build a team, identify knowledge gaps, discuss in a team environment, generate ideas, integrate ideas into solutions, monitor and evaluate. While from a social perspective, the experts will need to share knowledge, draw out differing perspectives, negotiate conflict, pursue joint and complementary actions, promote communication, coordinate others and foster behaviours that generate solutions{{gr} (Graesser et al., 2018). Because of the process involved in collaboration and needing to seek input from others, experts are less likely to adhere to old ideas or opinions thus breaking the cycle of entrenchment.

Adapting Communication Styles

Getting an expert to adapt their style to impart knowledge to an amateur may be a difficult task. In a 2007 study, researchers investigated if prompting would assist experts in considering their audience (Jucks, Schulte-Löbbert & Bromme, 2007). In the study medical experts were asked to draft, and then reflect upon, complex medical communications. In the first content-focused group, experts were prompted to reflect on the content of the text. In the second recipient-focused group, medical experts were asked to consider the comprehensibility of the text for the end reader. For the reflective component of the task, both groups received a software tool that highlighted specialist terms or concepts. The results showed that the recipient-focused group spent more time revising the text than the content-focused group. This led to the recipient-focused group elaborating on concepts in more detail and making more meaningful changes to the text, in comparison to the content-focused group. These results illustrate the importance of reflective practices. As training beginners often requires skills that are outside the expert's field of expertise, the reflective practice forces the expert to adapt their communication style to the beginner's level. In turn, increasing learning outcomes for the beginner[grammar?]. Again, this concept of prompting the expert to tailor the communication for the audience is an effective tactic to reduce Cognitive Entrenchment. As the expert must think about the content from another perspective, tailor the communication and share the information with another person in a manner that they can easily comprehend[grammar?].

Case Study: Adaptability Is Key

Nokia was formally one of the most valuable companies in the world. However, in September 2013, it sold for $7.2 billion, a fraction of its former worth. The technological giant’s downfall was its failure to adapt and respond to disruptive technologies—specifically the Apple iPhone. At the time of the iPhone’s release, Nokia was the market leader and expert in mobile phone technology. However, they failed to change with the times and respond to the environment.

So how did a market leader fall so quickly? Well, it’s likely that Cognitive Entrenchment was at play with technical experts and experienced business leaders unable to change their thinking and evolve. Instead, they continued their business model relatively unchanged and were eventually unable to compete with the new products produced.

This is due to the fact that while knowledge experts tend to perform, make decisions, and solve problems better than novices, research indicates that they can be slower to adapt to change. This is even sometimes referred to as the ‘curse of expertise’.


Throughout history, superior knowledge and expertise have been highly valued in society—helping to educate others, increase the knowledge base of key domains and improve overall decision making and outcomes. However, as an individual acquires expertise they can become inflexible and more prone to Cognitive Entrenchment.

Cognitive Entrenchment occurs when experienced groups or individuals become rigid in their thinking and revert to what they know best, thus becoming inflexible to change and unable to adapt. They become stuck in the trap of simply doing what they have always done—even when faced with a more optimal (but less familiar) path. This is detrimental to the field and can impact the expert’s ability to solve new problems and share their expert knowledge with others. They may even become outdated over time if they are unable to learn and be open-minded. It is likely that schemas—which are cognitive frameworks that allow us to quickly make sense of stimuli and respond appropriately—aid Cognitive Entrenchment as pre-saved information and solutions prevent new solutions from being sought. These schemas are particularly hard to change as people are generally resistant to new information that undermines a schema—they tend to disregard or make attempts to reinterpret it. This is particularly true for experts who may become more inflexible as their expertise increases.

However, there are simple techniques that can help mitigate Cognitive Entrenchment. These include utilising interleaved problem-solving techniques, whereby you switch your intention between ongoing tasks to positively affect the generation of new ideas, allowing time to be flexible and explore different paths. Collaboration and encouraging input from others are also tactics that can help to reduce entrenchment, as the collaboration process, whereby knowledge is shared and new ideas are encouraged, naturally reduces the likelihood of adhering to old ideas or opinions. Lastly, communication techniques such as prompting the expert to tailor the communication for the audience is also an effective tactic to reduce cognitive entrenchment. As the expert must think about the content from another perspective, tailor the communication and share the information with another person in a comprehensible manner[grammar?].

In a changing environment, it’s important to remain open to change, willing to learn and able to adapt—or both experts and companies face the possibility of becoming obsolete. To again paraphrase Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, “do not get stuck in one's own views ‘because we’ve always done it this way’… approaches from the past can be changed in the future”.

See also


Armougum, A., Gaston-Bellegarde, A., Joie-La Marle, C., & Piolino, P. (2020). Expertise reversal effect: Cost of generating new schemas. Computers in Human Behavior, 111, 106406.

Bilalić, M., McLeod, P., & Gobet, F. (2008). Inflexibility of experts—Reality or myth? Quantifying the Einstellung effect in chess masters. Cognitive psychology, 56(2), 73-102.

Bilalić, M., McLeod, P., & Gobet, F. (2009). Specialization effect and its influence on memory and problem solving in expert chess players. Cognitive science, 33(6), 1117-1143.

Clubb, J. (2021, October 7). The Dark Side of Expertise: Cognitive Entrenchment. Global Perf Insights. Retrieved from

Dane, E. (2010). Reconsidering the trade-off between expertise and flexibility: A cognitive entrenchment perspective. Academy of Management Review, 35(4), 579-603.

Emhardt, S. N., Kok, E. M., Jarodzka, H., Brand, G. S., Drumm, C., & Gog, T. (2020). How experts adapt their gaze behavior when modeling a task to novices. Cognitive Science, 44(9).

Ericsson, K. A., Hoffman, R. R., Kozbelt, A., & Williams, A. M. (Eds.). (2018). The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance. Cambridge University Press.

Foster, N. L., Mueller, M. L., Dunlosky, J., & Finkenthal, L. (2022). What is the impact of interleaving practice and delaying judgments on the accuracy of category-learning judgments? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

Graesser, A. C., Fiore, S. M., Greiff, S., Andrews-Todd, J., Foltz, P. W., & Hesse, F. W. (2018). Advancing the science of collaborative problem solving. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(2), 59-92.

Grech, P. (2020, March 22). Cognitive Entrenchment and the curious case of Jose Mourinho. Footy Analyst.

Hinds, P. J., Patterson, M., & Pfeffer, J. (2001). Bothered by abstraction: The effect of expertise on knowledge transfer and subsequent novice performance. Journal of applied psychology, 86(6), 1232.

Hong, S. S., Yazejian, N., Guss, S., Stein, A., Connors, M., Horm, D., & Kainz, K. (2019). Broadening the definition of collaboration in early care and education. Early Education and Development, 30(8), 1084–1093.

Jansson, D. G., & Smith, S. M. (1991). Design fixation. Design studies, 12(1), 3-11.

Jucks, R., Schulte-Löbbert, P., & Bromme, R. (2007). Supporting experts' written knowledge communication through reflective prompts on the use of specialist concepts. Zeitschrift für Psychologie/Journal of Psychology, 215(4), 237.

Necka, E., & Kubik, T. (2012). How non-experts fail where experts do not: Implications of expertise for resistance to cognitive rigidity. Studia Psychologica, 54(1), 3.

Phan, H. P., & Ngu, B. H. (2021). A case for cognitive entrenchment: to achieve optimal best, taking into account the importance of perceived optimal efficiency and cognitive load imposition. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.

Ross, L., Lepper, M. R., & Hubbard, M. (1975). Perseverance in self-perception and social perception: biased attributional processes in the debriefing paradigm. Journal of personality and social psychology, 32(5), 880.

Steblay, N., Hosch, H. M., Culhane, S. E., & McWethy, A. (2006). The impact on juror verdicts of judicial instruction to disregard inadmissible evidence: a meta-analysis. Law and Human Behavior, 30(4), 469.

Taylor, K., & Rohrer, D. (2010). The effects of interleaved practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24(6), 837–848.

Vaughan, G. M., & Hogg, M. A. (2013). Social psychology. Pearson Higher Education AU.

Yılmaz, E., Yel, S., & Griffiths, M. D. (2022). Comparison of children’s social problem-solving skills who play videogames and traditional games: A cross-cultural study. Computers & Education, 87, 1–13.

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