Mental Set Psychology Definition

Your mind is your most powerful tool, and understanding mental set psychology will help you learn more about your mind and how it works.

It is very important to get adequate knowledge on mental set psychology and how they can become obstacles hindering effective thinking.

We will be discussing the mental set psychology definition in this post. It will serve as a brief guide for you to know why it is often difficult to solve problems in diverse ways, although you can.

The human brain is a problem-solving organ. But how do we trigger this feature? Why do we mostly use one approach to solve problems when countless options exist? Let’s see!

Mental Set Psychology: Definition

By definition, mental set psychology generally refers to the brain’s ability to stick with the most familiar and effective solution to a problem while ignoring other alternatives.

What this means is that, as human beings, we have this normal tendency to approach and solve problems in a particular way that worked for us before. The brain automatically recognizes this past solution that worked and sticks with it.

However, if we think about it for a few minutes, we will realize that there are other possible approaches to solving that same problem. Resorting to previous solutions that worked in the past may be effective, but it limits the brain from seeking easier and more effective solutions.

The human brain works non-stop, solving our everyday problems. For example; you wake up each morning and you think ‘What would I eat today?’ ‘What will I wear to work?’ ‘Where did I drop my phone?’ Should I take the train or walk to school?’ You get answers to these questions don’t you? Yes, you do.

Examples of Mental Set Psychology

Look at these everyday examples of Mental Set Psychology

  • At your place of work, you always left-click and drag down a text in order to highlight it. One morning, your boss tells you to click on the text, hold the control button on your keyboard and press the letter A. It worked. Few minutes later, you find yourself left-clicking and dragging down another text again. This is because your mind has automatically stuck with the first method and it will take constant practice for you to adapt.
  • Imagine this scenario: You normally pull on a door handle to open the door but this time, the door doesn’t open. You try it a few more times before you realize that there is a notice on the door, asking you to “push”. You failed to notice this “push” sign because you are automatically used to pulling the door handle.
  • Your computer freezes, so you automatically press the power button without trying to close a few windows or find another solution; one that doesn’t require pressing the power button. After all, restarting your computer in the past has always solved the problem.

Why does Mental Set Psychology Happen?

The human brain functions in a way that automatically sticks to the most familiar solution to a problem.

Sometimes, mental set psychology happens due to the knowledge you’ve gained from dealing with similar situations in the past, repeatedly practicing a certain solution that worked, or having expertise in a particular field.

Getting used to solving problems the same way over and over again can make it difficult to find other new strategies for solving problems. What if an event happens that requires you to think outside the box? or you are the type that always crams for tests and examinations. What happens when you come to class morning and you are faced with an impromptu test?

How does Mental Set Psychology Work; Types

Mental Set Psychology works based on certain concepts. These are not the only concepts; just a few of them.

Functional Fixedness: 

Functional fixedness is regarded as a type of mental set psychology where we can only solve problems using certain objects that work in an expected manner. The human mind is limited to just one function of a particular element.

This means we think of objects only in the way the object is originally designed to work. The main use or purpose of an object limits its other possible or potential uses.

For example, the rubber band can be used to pack our hair but it can also be used to keep together opened packets. But someone having functional fixedness will only use the rubber band for packing hair and not see other multiple functions of the object.

Impact of Past Experiences: 

Our past experiences can limit our performance and ability to find new creative ways to do things.

The impact of our past experiences can become a type of mental set psychology that narrows our mental and thinking process and it is not certain that the same solutions will work all the time. 

These experiences can hinder your everyday learning. Imagine being used to an automatic car and you suddenly have to switch to a manual car. It becomes difficult as you are already used to driving an automatic car.

In this example, the past experience of driving an automatic car is hampering new learning strategies. 


Stereotypes can be seen as a part of mental set psychology as it is learned through association and taught by the people of their own social group.

It stands in the way of progressive thinking which may cause harm in our day-to-day lives. 

How to Solve Problems

Having explained all you need to know about mental sets psychology, let’s see how you can deal with it and solve problems.

  • The first step to solving problems is to identify the problem causing inconvenience.
  • Then, take an active decision whether to tackle the identified problem or leave it.
  • Next, completely understand the problem in order to come up with the appropriate solution. 
  • The next step is to research available options. This process involves studying and analyzing the problem in such a way that you are able to come up with the most effective solution. 
  • The final step involves taking necessary actions to implement the researched plan.

Other Ways of Solving a Problem

You can consider the following ways to solve problems apart from the steps mentioned above.

  • Abstraction: This involves developing an idea of the problem and coming up with a solution before applying it in real life.
  • Analogy: This involves using a solution that worked in the past for a similar problem.
  • Brainstorming: Coming up with different possible solutions and analyzing them to come up with the best solution.
  • Divide and conquer: Break down the identified problem into smaller bits and solve them.
  • Hypothesis testing: This step involves forming and testing a hypothesis to prove if it is applicable or not.
  • Lateral thinking: This method involves adopting a creative method to solve the problem
  • Means-ends analysis: This method requires choosing an action at each step to move closer to the goal.
  • Morphological analysis: This is basically assessing the output and interactions of an entire system.
  • Proof: At this step, you try to prove that the problem cannot be solved. The point where the proof fails will be the starting point for solving the problem.
  • Reduction: This step involves trying to transform the problem into another problem to use its solution.
  • Root-cause analysis: Identifying the main cause of a problem.


It is absolutely normal to have a mental set of psychology. This guide has told you almost everything about it.

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