The door behind you is locked shut by a rotary combination lock. On the wall in front of you hang three picture frames, each one containing a painting of random patterns and colours. You inspect all three and deduce that there has to be numbers hidden in each one, which you think are part of an equation that, when solved, will unlock the door to your escape. You scan these repeatedly and, unfortunately, throughout the time you spent scrutinizing strokes for more clues to support your theory, it didn’t occur to you to simply flip each frame over where you would’ve found a number clearly written on the back of each, which would have led to your freedom.
A cognitive bias is a mental block that hinders you from correctly solving a problem. It influences nearly every decision you make, including the strategy you choose for a puzzle.
Many types of cognitive biases affect different areas of problem solving, but we’ll examine the top three that escape game players frequently make. Understanding these mental barriers can save you precious time and increase your team’s success rate in escape rooms (and even in everyday life!).
1. Mental Set
Abraham Luchin’s famous water-jug puzzle. Given three measuring jugs of different sizes, apply an equation to obtain the exact amount of water asked for.
It probably took you a while to figure out the first one, but then you became quicker at solving the next couple, applying the correct formula B – A – 2C. What about the second last puzzle? Did you use the formula again? If you did, then you were correct!
But you probably didn’t discover the more direct solution: A + C. And you might’ve taken longer solving the very last problem, which is quickly solved using the formula A – C.
Mental set is a framework or strategy we consistently use to approach a problem because it has proved successful for solving a similar problem. Mental set can be useful for quickly working through a straightforward problem, but the wrong mental set hampers your ability to find the correct or optimal solution.
2. Functional Fixedness
Two pieces of string hang from the ceiling. They are too far apart from each other for you to tie them together. There is also a table with a screwdriver, a box of matches and pieces of cotton. How do you tie the strings together?
Have no idea how any of the given everyday objects can be useful to you? A form of mental set, functional fixedness, is the difficulty of finding new and novel uses for an object beyond its typical, familiar use. It might not have occurred to you to tie the screwdriver to one end of the string and swing it as a pendulum to reach the other string, but it’s a creative solution to the predicament!
3. Unnecessary Constraints
Take this grid of nine dots and, without lifting your pen, draw four straight lines that pass through each dot only once.
Some of you may have attempted the well-known nine dots puzzle before and had probably assumed your lines had to stay within the borders of the grid. But the problem never states that you couldn’t extend your lines outside of it!
Unnecessary constraints are the unwarranted assumptions we often make about a problem, which limit creative thinking. The expression, “Thinking outside the box”, was popularized by this puzzle. This common bias is only overcome by a sudden realization, known as an Eureka effect.
Cognitive biases aren’t bad. In fact, some are heuristics, or rules of thumb, that are useful. We often don’t have time to consider all of our options before coming to a decision, so mental shortcuts that have (in general) been proven to work are useful. But these shortcuts can, ironically, be time-wasting, preventing us from thinking rationally or creatively about a problem.
Sharing your ideas with your teammates can help you and others identify any barriers in thinking. Therefore, communication is your key tool to overcoming your mental barriers and ultimately, the physical barrier standing between you and freedom when locked in a room – and when you finally find the key and escape, remember these when tackling life’s problems as well!