How do you cut up a birthday cake? If you’re like me until last year, you cut out wedges – a segment of arc tapering to a fragile point – and unless you eat the entire cake in one sitting (which can happen, of course) you’re left with a tricky shape to wrap in cling-film, two cut sides exposed to air and slowly going stale.
Because that’s how you cut cake, right? It had never even occured to me there might be another way to do it. And I have two kids who between them have had 21 parties – I’ve cut a LOT of cake in my time.
But last year, someone shared a video on Facebook that changed everything (you can see the detail here) – basically, you cut a thin long slice from the middle then sandwich the two remaining nearly-halves together again to form a slightly smaller, not quite round cake. Then you carry on cutting slices across both axes, each time bringing the quarters together to create an ever-smaller round(ish) cake with no exposed cut surfaces. It’s genius. And as a bonus, the resulting regular slices are WAY easier to wrap in serviettes and pop into party bags.
And it’s a great example of a business concept known as the Einstellung effect – our tendency to use the first idea that comes to mind, typically a solution that’s worked before, even if it’s not perfect, rather than look for a better alternative.
It’s a trade-off: there are good cognitive reasons why our brains recognise patterns and present us with good-enough solutions most of the time. Living is a complex business, and we routinely use heuristics – good-enough mental rules of thumb – to save processing power and time.
Also, we’re often proud of our hard-won experience, our know-how, the way we’ve got a particular process or skill down to an art.
It can be hard to have the humility and energy to stop every now again and consider – is this still the best way? But it might just be worth it.