Overcoming the Mental Set Effect in Programming Problem Solving

Agnia Sergeyuk, Sergey Titov, Yaroslav Golubev, and Timofey Bryksin

August, 2023. Published in the proceedings of PPIG'23 (Workshop).

Abstract. This paper adopts a cognitive psychology perspective to investigate the recurring mistakes in code resulting from the mental set (Einstellung) effect. The Einstellung effect is the tendency to approach problem-solving with a preconceived mindset, often overlooking better solutions that may be available. This effect can significantly impact creative thinking, as the development of patterns of thought can hinder the emergence of novel and creative ideas. Our study aims to test the Einstellung effect and the two mechanisms of its overcoming in the field of programming. The first intervention was the change of the color scheme of the code editor to the less habitual one. The second intervention was a combination of instruction to "forget the previous solutions and tasks" and the change in the color scheme. During the experiment, participants were given two sets of four programming tasks. Each task had two possible solutions: one using suboptimal code dictated by the mental set, and the other using a less familiar but more efficient and recommended methodology. Between the sets, participants either received no treatment or one of two interventions aimed at helping them overcome the mental set. The results of our experiment suggest that the tested techniques were insufficient to support overcoming the mental set, which we attribute to the specificity of the programming domain. The study contributes to the existing literature by providing insights into creativity support during problem-solving in software development and offering a framework for experimental research in this field.

Pre-print Data