7.3 Problem-Solving

Learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe problem solving strategies
  • Define algorithm and heuristic
  • Explain some common roadblocks to effective problem solving

   People face problems every day—usually, multiple problems throughout the day. Sometimes these problems are straightforward: To double a recipe for pizza dough, for example, all that is required is that each ingredient in the recipe be doubled. Sometimes, however, the problems we encounter are more complex. For example, say you have a work deadline, and you must mail a printed copy of a report to your supervisor by the end of the business day. The report is time-sensitive and must be sent overnight. You finished the report last night, but your printer will not work today. What should you do? First, you need to identify the problem and then apply a strategy for solving the problem.

The study of human and animal problem solving processes has provided much insight toward the understanding of our conscious experience and led to advancements in computer science and artificial intelligence. Essentially much of cognitive science today represents studies of how we consciously and unconsciously make decisions and solve problems. For instance, when encountered with a large amount of information, how do we go about making decisions about the most efficient way of sorting and analyzing all the information in order to find what you are looking for as in visual search paradigms in cognitive psychology. Or in a situation where a piece of machinery is not working properly, how do we go about organizing how to address the issue and understand what the cause of the problem might be. How do we sort the procedures that will be needed and focus attention on what is important in order to solve problems efficiently. Within this section we will discuss some of these issues and examine processes related to human, animal and computer problem solving.

PROBLEM-SOLVING STRATEGIES

   When people are presented with a problem—whether it is a complex mathematical problem or a broken printer, how do you solve it? Before finding a solution to the problem, the problem must first be clearly identified. After that, one of many problem solving strategies can be applied, hopefully resulting in a solution.

Problems themselves can be classified into two different categories known as ill-defined and well-defined problems (Schacter, 2009). Ill-defined problems represent issues that do not have clear goals, solution paths, or expected solutions whereas well-defined problems have specific goals, clearly defined solutions, and clear expected solutions. Problem solving often incorporates pragmatics (logical reasoning) and semantics (interpretation of meanings behind the problem), and also in many cases require abstract thinking and creativity in order to find novel solutions. Within psychology, problem solving refers to a motivational drive for reading a definite “goal” from a present situation or condition that is either not moving toward that goal, is distant from it, or requires more complex logical analysis for finding a missing description of conditions or steps toward that goal. Processes relating to problem solving include problem finding also known as problem analysis, problem shaping where the organization of the problem occurs, generating alternative strategies, implementation of attempted solutions, and verification of the selected solution. Various methods of studying problem solving exist within the field of psychology including introspection, behavior analysis and behaviorism, simulation, computer modeling, and experimentation.

A problem-solving strategy is a plan of action used to find a solution. Different strategies have different action plans associated with them (table below). For example, a well-known strategy is trial and error. The old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” describes trial and error. In terms of your broken printer, you could try checking the ink levels, and if that doesn’t work, you could check to make sure the paper tray isn’t jammed. Or maybe the printer isn’t actually connected to your laptop. When using trial and error, you would continue to try different solutions until you solved your problem. Although trial and error is not typically one of the most time-efficient strategies, it is a commonly used one.

   Another type of strategy is an algorithm. An algorithm is a problem-solving formula that provides you with step-by-step instructions used to achieve a desired outcome (Kahneman, 2011). You can think of an algorithm as a recipe with highly detailed instructions that produce the same result every time they are performed. Algorithms are used frequently in our everyday lives, especially in computer science. When you run a search on the Internet, search engines like Google use algorithms to decide which entries will appear first in your list of results. Facebook also uses algorithms to decide which posts to display on your newsfeed. Can you identify other situations in which algorithms are used?

A heuristic is another type of problem solving strategy. While an algorithm must be followed exactly to produce a correct result, a heuristic is a general problem-solving framework (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). You can think of these as mental shortcuts that are used to solve problems. A “rule of thumb” is an example of a heuristic. Such a rule saves the person time and energy when making a decision, but despite its time-saving characteristics, it is not always the best method for making a rational decision. Different types of heuristics are used in different types of situations, but the impulse to use a heuristic occurs when one of five conditions is met (Pratkanis, 1989):

  • When one is faced with too much information
  • When the time to make a decision is limited
  • When the decision to be made is unimportant
  • When there is access to very little information to use in making the decision
  • When an appropriate heuristic happens to come to mind in the same moment

Working backwards is a useful heuristic in which you begin solving the problem by focusing on the end result. Consider this example: You live in Washington, D.C. and have been invited to a wedding at 4 PM on Saturday in Philadelphia. Knowing that Interstate 95 tends to back up any day of the week, you need to plan your route and time your departure accordingly. If you want to be at the wedding service by 3:30 PM, and it takes 2.5 hours to get to Philadelphia without traffic, what time should you leave your house? You use the working backwards heuristic to plan the events of your day on a regular basis, probably without even thinking about it.

Another useful heuristic is the practice of accomplishing a large goal or task by breaking it into a series of smaller steps. Students often use this common method to complete a large research project or long essay for school. For example, students typically brainstorm, develop a thesis or main topic, research the chosen topic, organize their information into an outline, write a rough draft, revise and edit the rough draft, develop a final draft, organize the references list, and proofread their work before turning in the project. The large task becomes less overwhelming when it is broken down into a series of small steps.

Further problem solving strategies have been identified (listed below) that incorporate flexible and creative thinking in order to reach solutions efficiently.

Additional Problem Solving Strategies :

  • Abstraction – refers to solving the problem within a model of the situation before applying it to reality.
  • Analogy – is using a solution that solves a similar problem.
  • Brainstorming – refers to collecting an analyzing a large amount of solutions, especially within a group of people, to combine the solutions and developing them until an optimal solution is reached.
  • Divide and conquer – breaking down large complex problems into smaller more manageable problems.
  • Hypothesis testing – method used in experimentation where an assumption about what would happen in response to manipulating an independent variable is made, and analysis of the affects of the manipulation are made and compared to the original hypothesis.
  • Lateral thinking – approaching problems indirectly and creatively by viewing the problem in a new and unusual light.
  • Means-ends analysis – choosing and analyzing an action at a series of smaller steps to move closer to the goal.
  • Method of focal objects – putting seemingly non-matching characteristics of different procedures together to make something new that will get you closer to the goal.
  • Morphological analysis – analyzing the outputs of and interactions of many pieces that together make up a whole system.
  • Proof – trying to prove that a problem cannot be solved. Where the proof fails becomes the starting point or solving the problem.
  • Reduction – adapting the problem to be as similar problems where a solution exists.
  • Research – using existing knowledge or solutions to similar problems to solve the problem.
  • Root cause analysis – trying to identify the cause of the problem.

The strategies listed above outline a short summary of methods we use in working toward solutions and also demonstrate how the mind works when being faced with barriers preventing goals to be reached.

One example of means-end analysis can be found by using the Tower of Hanoi paradigm . This paradigm can be modeled as a word problems as demonstrated by the Missionary-Cannibal Problem :

Missionary-Cannibal Problem

Three missionaries and three cannibals are on one side of a river and need to cross to the other side. The only means of crossing is a boat, and the boat can only hold two people at a time. Your goal is to devise a set of moves that will transport all six of the people across the river, being in mind the following constraint: The number of cannibals can never exceed the number of missionaries in any location. Remember that someone will have to also row that boat back across each time.

Hint : At one point in your solution, you will have to send more people back to the original side than you just sent to the destination.

The actual Tower of Hanoi problem consists of three rods sitting vertically on a base with a number of disks of different sizes that can slide onto any rod. The puzzle starts with the disks in a neat stack in ascending order of size on one rod, the smallest at the top making a conical shape. The objective of the puzzle is to move the entire stack to another rod obeying the following rules:

  • 1. Only one disk can be moved at a time.
  • 2. Each move consists of taking the upper disk from one of the stacks and placing it on top of another stack or on an empty rod.
  • 3. No disc may be placed on top of a smaller disk.

four steps of problem solving psychology

  Figure 7.02. Steps for solving the Tower of Hanoi in the minimum number of moves when there are 3 disks.

four steps of problem solving psychology

Figure 7.03. Graphical representation of nodes (circles) and moves (lines) of Tower of Hanoi.

The Tower of Hanoi is a frequently used psychological technique to study problem solving and procedure analysis. A variation of the Tower of Hanoi known as the Tower of London has been developed which has been an important tool in the neuropsychological diagnosis of executive function disorders and their treatment.

GESTALT PSYCHOLOGY AND PROBLEM SOLVING

As you may recall from the sensation and perception chapter, Gestalt psychology describes whole patterns, forms and configurations of perception and cognition such as closure, good continuation, and figure-ground. In addition to patterns of perception, Wolfgang Kohler, a German Gestalt psychologist traveled to the Spanish island of Tenerife in order to study animals behavior and problem solving in the anthropoid ape.

As an interesting side note to Kohler’s studies of chimp problem solving, Dr. Ronald Ley, professor of psychology at State University of New York provides evidence in his book A Whisper of Espionage  (1990) suggesting that while collecting data for what would later be his book  The Mentality of Apes (1925) on Tenerife in the Canary Islands between 1914 and 1920, Kohler was additionally an active spy for the German government alerting Germany to ships that were sailing around the Canary Islands. Ley suggests his investigations in England, Germany and elsewhere in Europe confirm that Kohler had served in the German military by building, maintaining and operating a concealed radio that contributed to Germany’s war effort acting as a strategic outpost in the Canary Islands that could monitor naval military activity approaching the north African coast.

While trapped on the island over the course of World War 1, Kohler applied Gestalt principles to animal perception in order to understand how they solve problems. He recognized that the apes on the islands also perceive relations between stimuli and the environment in Gestalt patterns and understand these patterns as wholes as opposed to pieces that make up a whole. Kohler based his theories of animal intelligence on the ability to understand relations between stimuli, and spent much of his time while trapped on the island investigation what he described as  insight , the sudden perception of useful or proper relations. In order to study insight in animals, Kohler would present problems to chimpanzee’s by hanging some banana’s or some kind of food so it was suspended higher than the apes could reach. Within the room, Kohler would arrange a variety of boxes, sticks or other tools the chimpanzees could use by combining in patterns or organizing in a way that would allow them to obtain the food (Kohler & Winter, 1925).

While viewing the chimpanzee’s, Kohler noticed one chimp that was more efficient at solving problems than some of the others. The chimp, named Sultan, was able to use long poles to reach through bars and organize objects in specific patterns to obtain food or other desirables that were originally out of reach. In order to study insight within these chimps, Kohler would remove objects from the room to systematically make the food more difficult to obtain. As the story goes, after removing many of the objects Sultan was used to using to obtain the food, he sat down ad sulked for a while, and then suddenly got up going over to two poles lying on the ground. Without hesitation Sultan put one pole inside the end of the other creating a longer pole that he could use to obtain the food demonstrating an ideal example of what Kohler described as insight. In another situation, Sultan discovered how to stand on a box to reach a banana that was suspended from the rafters illustrating Sultan’s perception of relations and the importance of insight in problem solving.

Grande (another chimp in the group studied by Kohler) builds a three-box structure to reach the bananas, while Sultan watches from the ground.  Insight , sometimes referred to as an “Ah-ha” experience, was the term Kohler used for the sudden perception of useful relations among objects during problem solving (Kohler, 1927; Radvansky & Ashcraft, 2013).

Solving puzzles.

   Problem-solving abilities can improve with practice. Many people challenge themselves every day with puzzles and other mental exercises to sharpen their problem-solving skills. Sudoku puzzles appear daily in most newspapers. Typically, a sudoku puzzle is a 9×9 grid. The simple sudoku below (see figure) is a 4×4 grid. To solve the puzzle, fill in the empty boxes with a single digit: 1, 2, 3, or 4. Here are the rules: The numbers must total 10 in each bolded box, each row, and each column; however, each digit can only appear once in a bolded box, row, and column. Time yourself as you solve this puzzle and compare your time with a classmate.

How long did it take you to solve this sudoku puzzle? (You can see the answer at the end of this section.)

   Here is another popular type of puzzle (figure below) that challenges your spatial reasoning skills. Connect all nine dots with four connecting straight lines without lifting your pencil from the paper:

Did you figure it out? (The answer is at the end of this section.) Once you understand how to crack this puzzle, you won’t forget.

   Take a look at the “Puzzling Scales” logic puzzle below (figure below). Sam Loyd, a well-known puzzle master, created and refined countless puzzles throughout his lifetime (Cyclopedia of Puzzles, n.d.).

A puzzle involving a scale is shown. At the top of the figure it reads: “Sam Loyds Puzzling Scales.” The first row of the puzzle shows a balanced scale with 3 blocks and a top on the left and 12 marbles on the right. Below this row it reads: “Since the scales now balance.” The next row of the puzzle shows a balanced scale with just the top on the left, and 1 block and 8 marbles on the right. Below this row it reads: “And balance when arranged this way.” The third row shows an unbalanced scale with the top on the left side, which is much lower than the right side. The right side is empty. Below this row it reads: “Then how many marbles will it require to balance with that top?”

What steps did you take to solve this puzzle? You can read the solution at the end of this section.

Pitfalls to problem solving.

   Not all problems are successfully solved, however. What challenges stop us from successfully solving a problem? Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Imagine a person in a room that has four doorways. One doorway that has always been open in the past is now locked. The person, accustomed to exiting the room by that particular doorway, keeps trying to get out through the same doorway even though the other three doorways are open. The person is stuck—but she just needs to go to another doorway, instead of trying to get out through the locked doorway. A mental set is where you persist in approaching a problem in a way that has worked in the past but is clearly not working now.

Functional fixedness is a type of mental set where you cannot perceive an object being used for something other than what it was designed for. During the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, NASA engineers at Mission Control had to overcome functional fixedness to save the lives of the astronauts aboard the spacecraft. An explosion in a module of the spacecraft damaged multiple systems. The astronauts were in danger of being poisoned by rising levels of carbon dioxide because of problems with the carbon dioxide filters. The engineers found a way for the astronauts to use spare plastic bags, tape, and air hoses to create a makeshift air filter, which saved the lives of the astronauts.

   Researchers have investigated whether functional fixedness is affected by culture. In one experiment, individuals from the Shuar group in Ecuador were asked to use an object for a purpose other than that for which the object was originally intended. For example, the participants were told a story about a bear and a rabbit that were separated by a river and asked to select among various objects, including a spoon, a cup, erasers, and so on, to help the animals. The spoon was the only object long enough to span the imaginary river, but if the spoon was presented in a way that reflected its normal usage, it took participants longer to choose the spoon to solve the problem. (German & Barrett, 2005). The researchers wanted to know if exposure to highly specialized tools, as occurs with individuals in industrialized nations, affects their ability to transcend functional fixedness. It was determined that functional fixedness is experienced in both industrialized and nonindustrialized cultures (German & Barrett, 2005).

In order to make good decisions, we use our knowledge and our reasoning. Often, this knowledge and reasoning is sound and solid. Sometimes, however, we are swayed by biases or by others manipulating a situation. For example, let’s say you and three friends wanted to rent a house and had a combined target budget of $1,600. The realtor shows you only very run-down houses for $1,600 and then shows you a very nice house for $2,000. Might you ask each person to pay more in rent to get the $2,000 home? Why would the realtor show you the run-down houses and the nice house? The realtor may be challenging your anchoring bias. An anchoring bias occurs when you focus on one piece of information when making a decision or solving a problem. In this case, you’re so focused on the amount of money you are willing to spend that you may not recognize what kinds of houses are available at that price point.

The confirmation bias is the tendency to focus on information that confirms your existing beliefs. For example, if you think that your professor is not very nice, you notice all of the instances of rude behavior exhibited by the professor while ignoring the countless pleasant interactions he is involved in on a daily basis. Hindsight bias leads you to believe that the event you just experienced was predictable, even though it really wasn’t. In other words, you knew all along that things would turn out the way they did. Representative bias describes a faulty way of thinking, in which you unintentionally stereotype someone or something; for example, you may assume that your professors spend their free time reading books and engaging in intellectual conversation, because the idea of them spending their time playing volleyball or visiting an amusement park does not fit in with your stereotypes of professors.

Finally, the availability heuristic is a heuristic in which you make a decision based on an example, information, or recent experience that is that readily available to you, even though it may not be the best example to inform your decision . Biases tend to “preserve that which is already established—to maintain our preexisting knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and hypotheses” (Aronson, 1995; Kahneman, 2011). These biases are summarized in the table below.

Were you able to determine how many marbles are needed to balance the scales in the figure below? You need nine. Were you able to solve the problems in the figures above? Here are the answers.

The first puzzle is a Sudoku grid of 16 squares (4 rows of 4 squares) is shown. Half of the numbers were supplied to start the puzzle and are colored blue, and half have been filled in as the puzzle’s solution and are colored red. The numbers in each row of the grid, left to right, are as follows. Row 1: blue 3, red 1, red 4, blue 2. Row 2: red 2, blue 4, blue 1, red 3. Row 3: red 1, blue 3, blue 2, red 4. Row 4: blue 4, red 2, red 3, blue 1.The second puzzle consists of 9 dots arranged in 3 rows of 3 inside of a square. The solution, four straight lines made without lifting the pencil, is shown in a red line with arrows indicating the direction of movement. In order to solve the puzzle, the lines must extend beyond the borders of the box. The four connecting lines are drawn as follows. Line 1 begins at the top left dot, proceeds through the middle and right dots of the top row, and extends to the right beyond the border of the square. Line 2 extends from the end of line 1, through the right dot of the horizontally centered row, through the middle dot of the bottom row, and beyond the square’s border ending in the space beneath the left dot of the bottom row. Line 3 extends from the end of line 2 upwards through the left dots of the bottom, middle, and top rows. Line 4 extends from the end of line 3 through the middle dot in the middle row and ends at the right dot of the bottom row.

   Many different strategies exist for solving problems. Typical strategies include trial and error, applying algorithms, and using heuristics. To solve a large, complicated problem, it often helps to break the problem into smaller steps that can be accomplished individually, leading to an overall solution. Roadblocks to problem solving include a mental set, functional fixedness, and various biases that can cloud decision making skills.

References:

Openstax Psychology text by Kathryn Dumper, William Jenkins, Arlene Lacombe, Marilyn Lovett and Marion Perlmutter licensed under CC BY v4.0. https://openstax.org/details/books/psychology

Review Questions:

1. A specific formula for solving a problem is called ________.

a. an algorithm

b. a heuristic

c. a mental set

d. trial and error

2. Solving the Tower of Hanoi problem tends to utilize a  ________ strategy of problem solving.

a. divide and conquer

b. means-end analysis

d. experiment

3. A mental shortcut in the form of a general problem-solving framework is called ________.

4. Which type of bias involves becoming fixated on a single trait of a problem?

a. anchoring bias

b. confirmation bias

c. representative bias

d. availability bias

5. Which type of bias involves relying on a false stereotype to make a decision?

6. Wolfgang Kohler analyzed behavior of chimpanzees by applying Gestalt principles to describe ________.

a. social adjustment

b. student load payment options

c. emotional learning

d. insight learning

7. ________ is a type of mental set where you cannot perceive an object being used for something other than what it was designed for.

a. functional fixedness

c. working memory

Critical Thinking Questions:

1. What is functional fixedness and how can overcoming it help you solve problems?

2. How does an algorithm save you time and energy when solving a problem?

Personal Application Question:

1. Which type of bias do you recognize in your own decision making processes? How has this bias affected how you’ve made decisions in the past and how can you use your awareness of it to improve your decisions making skills in the future?

anchoring bias

availability heuristic

confirmation bias

functional fixedness

hindsight bias

problem-solving strategy

representative bias

trial and error

working backwards

Answers to Exercises

algorithm:  problem-solving strategy characterized by a specific set of instructions

anchoring bias:  faulty heuristic in which you fixate on a single aspect of a problem to find a solution

availability heuristic:  faulty heuristic in which you make a decision based on information readily available to you

confirmation bias:  faulty heuristic in which you focus on information that confirms your beliefs

functional fixedness:  inability to see an object as useful for any other use other than the one for which it was intended

heuristic:  mental shortcut that saves time when solving a problem

hindsight bias:  belief that the event just experienced was predictable, even though it really wasn’t

mental set:  continually using an old solution to a problem without results

problem-solving strategy:  method for solving problems

representative bias:  faulty heuristic in which you stereotype someone or something without a valid basis for your judgment

trial and error:  problem-solving strategy in which multiple solutions are attempted until the correct one is found

working backwards:  heuristic in which you begin to solve a problem by focusing on the end result

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Psychological Steps Involved in Problem Solving

four steps of problem solving psychology

A mental process or a phenomenon dedicated towards solving problems by discovering and analyzing the problem is referred to as problem-solving. It is a process dedicated to finding not just any solution, but the best solution to resolve any problems. There is no such thing as one best way to solve every kind of problem, since there are unique problems depending upon the situation there are unique solutions too.

Steps involved in problem solving

In psychology, problem solving doesn’t necessarily refer to solving psychological/mental issues of the brain. The process simply refers to solving every kind of problems in life in a proper manner. The idea of including the subject in psychology is because psychology deals with the overall mental process. And, tactfully using our thought process is what leads to the solution of any problems.

There are number of rigid psychological steps involved in problem solving, which is also referred as problem-solving cycle. The steps are in sequential order, and solving any problem requires following them one after another. But, we tend to avoid following this rigid set of steps, which is why it often requires us to go through the same steps over and over again until a satisfactory solution is reached.

Here are the steps involved in problem solving, approved by expert psychologists.

1. Identifying the Problem

Identifying the problem seems like the obvious first stem, but it’s not exactly as simple as it sounds. People might identify the wrong source of a problem, which will render the steps thus carried on useless.

For instance , let’s say you’re having trouble with your studies. identifying the root of your failure is your first priority. The problem here could be that you haven’t been allocating enough time for your studies, or you haven’t tried the right techniques. But, if you make an assumption that the problem here is the subject being too hard, you won’t be able to solve the problem.

2. Defining/Understanding the Problem

Defining the problem

It’s vital to properly define the problem once it’s been identified. Only by defining the problem, further steps can be taken to solve it. While at it, you also need to take into consideration different perspectives to understand any problem; this will also help you look for solutions with different perspectives.

Now, following up with the previous example . Let’s say you have identified the problem as not being able to allocate enough time for your studies. You need to sort out the reason behind it. Have you just been procrastinating? Have you been too busy with work? You need to understand the whole problem and reasons behind it, which is the second step in problem solving.

3. Forming a Strategy

Developing a strategy is the next step to finding a solution. Each different situation will require formulating different strategies, also depending on individual’s unique preferences.

Now, you have identified and studied your problem. You can’t just simply jump into trying to solve it. You can’t just quit work and start studying. You need to draw up a strategy to manage your time properly. Allocate less time for not-so-important works, and add them to your study time. Your strategy should be well thought, so that in theory at least, you are able to manage enough time to study properly and not fail in the exams.

4. Organizing Information

Organizing information when solving a problem

Organizing the available information is another crucial step to the process. You need to consider

  • What do you know about the problem?
  • What do you not know about the problem?

Accuracy of the solution for your problem will depend on the amount of information available.

The hypothetical strategy you formulate isn’t the all of it either. You need to now contemplate on the information available on the subject matter. Use the aforementioned questions to find out more about the problem. Proper organization of the information will force you to revise your strategy and refine it for best results.

5. Allocating Resources

Time, money and other resources aren’t unlimited. Deciding how high the priority is to solve your problem will help you determine the resources you’ll be using in your course to find the solution. If the problem is important, you can allocate more resources to solving it. However, if the problem isn’t as important, it’s not worth the time and money you might spend on it if not for proper planning.

For instance , let’s consider a different scenario where your business deal is stuck, but it’s few thousand miles away. Now, you need to analyze the problem and the resources you can afford to expend to solve the particular problem. If the deal isn’t really in your favor, you could just try solving it over the phone, however, more important deals might require you to fly to the location in order to solve the issue.

6. Monitoring Progress

Monitoring progress of solution of a problem

You need to document your progress as you are finding a solution. Don’t rely on your memory, no matter how good your memory is. Effective problem-solvers have been known to monitor their progress regularly. And, if they’re not making as much progress as they’re supposed to, they will reevaluate their approach or look for new strategies.

Problem solving isn’t an overnight feat. You can’t just have a body like that of Brad Pitt after a single session in the gym. It takes time and patience. Likewise, you need to work towards solving any problem every day until you finally achieve the results. Looking back at the previous example , if everything’s according to plan, you will be allocating more and more time for your studies until finally you are confident that you’re improving. One way to make sure that you’re on a right path to solving a problem is by keeping track of the progress. To solve the problem illustrated in the first example, you can take self-tests every week or two and track your progress.

7. Evaluating the Results

Your job still isn’t done even if you’ve reached a solution. You need to evaluate the solution to find out if it’s the best possible solution to the problem. The evaluation might be immediate or might take a while. For instance , answer to a math problem can be checked then and there, however solution to your yearly tax issue might not be possible to be evaluated right there.

  • Take time to identify the possible sources of the problem. It’s better to spend a substantial amount of time on something right, than on something completely opposite.
  • Ask yourself questions like What, Why, How to figure out the causes of the problem. Only then can you move forward on solving it.
  • Carefully outline the methods to tackle the problem. There might be different solutions to a problem, record them all.
  • Gather all information about the problem and the approaches. More, the merrier.
  • From the outlined methods, choose the ones that are viable to approach. Try discarding the ones that have unseen consequences.
  • Track your progress as you go.
  • Evaluate the outcome of the progress.

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  • 7.3 Problem Solving
  • Introduction
  • 1.1 What Is Psychology?
  • 1.2 History of Psychology
  • 1.3 Contemporary Psychology
  • 1.4 Careers in Psychology
  • Review Questions
  • Critical Thinking Questions
  • Personal Application Questions
  • 2.1 Why Is Research Important?
  • 2.2 Approaches to Research
  • 2.3 Analyzing Findings
  • 3.1 Human Genetics
  • 3.2 Cells of the Nervous System
  • 3.3 Parts of the Nervous System
  • 3.4 The Brain and Spinal Cord
  • 3.5 The Endocrine System
  • 4.1 What Is Consciousness?
  • 4.2 Sleep and Why We Sleep
  • 4.3 Stages of Sleep
  • 4.4 Sleep Problems and Disorders
  • 4.5 Substance Use and Abuse
  • 4.6 Other States of Consciousness
  • 5.1 Sensation versus Perception
  • 5.2 Waves and Wavelengths
  • 5.4 Hearing
  • 5.5 The Other Senses
  • 5.6 Gestalt Principles of Perception
  • 6.1 What Is Learning?
  • 6.2 Classical Conditioning
  • 6.3 Operant Conditioning
  • 6.4 Observational Learning (Modeling)
  • 7.1 What Is Cognition?
  • 7.2 Language
  • 7.4 What Are Intelligence and Creativity?
  • 7.5 Measures of Intelligence
  • 7.6 The Source of Intelligence
  • 8.1 How Memory Functions
  • 8.2 Parts of the Brain Involved with Memory
  • 8.3 Problems with Memory
  • 8.4 Ways to Enhance Memory
  • 9.1 What Is Lifespan Development?
  • 9.2 Lifespan Theories
  • 9.3 Stages of Development
  • 9.4 Death and Dying
  • 10.1 Motivation
  • 10.2 Hunger and Eating
  • 10.3 Sexual Behavior, Sexuality, and Gender Identity
  • 10.4 Emotion
  • 11.1 What Is Personality?
  • 11.2 Freud and the Psychodynamic Perspective
  • 11.3 Neo-Freudians: Adler, Erikson, Jung, and Horney
  • 11.4 Learning Approaches
  • 11.5 Humanistic Approaches
  • 11.6 Biological Approaches
  • 11.7 Trait Theorists
  • 11.8 Cultural Understandings of Personality
  • 11.9 Personality Assessment
  • 12.1 What Is Social Psychology?
  • 12.2 Self-presentation
  • 12.3 Attitudes and Persuasion
  • 12.4 Conformity, Compliance, and Obedience
  • 12.5 Prejudice and Discrimination
  • 12.6 Aggression
  • 12.7 Prosocial Behavior
  • 13.1 What Is Industrial and Organizational Psychology?
  • 13.2 Industrial Psychology: Selecting and Evaluating Employees
  • 13.3 Organizational Psychology: The Social Dimension of Work
  • 13.4 Human Factors Psychology and Workplace Design
  • 14.1 What Is Stress?
  • 14.2 Stressors
  • 14.3 Stress and Illness
  • 14.4 Regulation of Stress
  • 14.5 The Pursuit of Happiness
  • 15.1 What Are Psychological Disorders?
  • 15.2 Diagnosing and Classifying Psychological Disorders
  • 15.3 Perspectives on Psychological Disorders
  • 15.4 Anxiety Disorders
  • 15.5 Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders
  • 15.6 Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
  • 15.7 Mood and Related Disorders
  • 15.8 Schizophrenia
  • 15.9 Dissociative Disorders
  • 15.10 Disorders in Childhood
  • 15.11 Personality Disorders
  • 16.1 Mental Health Treatment: Past and Present
  • 16.2 Types of Treatment
  • 16.3 Treatment Modalities
  • 16.4 Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders: A Special Case
  • 16.5 The Sociocultural Model and Therapy Utilization

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe problem solving strategies
  • Define algorithm and heuristic
  • Explain some common roadblocks to effective problem solving and decision making

People face problems every day—usually, multiple problems throughout the day. Sometimes these problems are straightforward: To double a recipe for pizza dough, for example, all that is required is that each ingredient in the recipe be doubled. Sometimes, however, the problems we encounter are more complex. For example, say you have a work deadline, and you must mail a printed copy of a report to your supervisor by the end of the business day. The report is time-sensitive and must be sent overnight. You finished the report last night, but your printer will not work today. What should you do? First, you need to identify the problem and then apply a strategy for solving the problem.

Problem-Solving Strategies

When you are presented with a problem—whether it is a complex mathematical problem or a broken printer, how do you solve it? Before finding a solution to the problem, the problem must first be clearly identified. After that, one of many problem solving strategies can be applied, hopefully resulting in a solution.

A problem-solving strategy is a plan of action used to find a solution. Different strategies have different action plans associated with them ( Table 7.2 ). For example, a well-known strategy is trial and error . The old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” describes trial and error. In terms of your broken printer, you could try checking the ink levels, and if that doesn’t work, you could check to make sure the paper tray isn’t jammed. Or maybe the printer isn’t actually connected to your laptop. When using trial and error, you would continue to try different solutions until you solved your problem. Although trial and error is not typically one of the most time-efficient strategies, it is a commonly used one.

Another type of strategy is an algorithm. An algorithm is a problem-solving formula that provides you with step-by-step instructions used to achieve a desired outcome (Kahneman, 2011). You can think of an algorithm as a recipe with highly detailed instructions that produce the same result every time they are performed. Algorithms are used frequently in our everyday lives, especially in computer science. When you run a search on the Internet, search engines like Google use algorithms to decide which entries will appear first in your list of results. Facebook also uses algorithms to decide which posts to display on your newsfeed. Can you identify other situations in which algorithms are used?

A heuristic is another type of problem solving strategy. While an algorithm must be followed exactly to produce a correct result, a heuristic is a general problem-solving framework (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). You can think of these as mental shortcuts that are used to solve problems. A “rule of thumb” is an example of a heuristic. Such a rule saves the person time and energy when making a decision, but despite its time-saving characteristics, it is not always the best method for making a rational decision. Different types of heuristics are used in different types of situations, but the impulse to use a heuristic occurs when one of five conditions is met (Pratkanis, 1989):

  • When one is faced with too much information
  • When the time to make a decision is limited
  • When the decision to be made is unimportant
  • When there is access to very little information to use in making the decision
  • When an appropriate heuristic happens to come to mind in the same moment

Working backwards is a useful heuristic in which you begin solving the problem by focusing on the end result. Consider this example: You live in Washington, D.C. and have been invited to a wedding at 4 PM on Saturday in Philadelphia. Knowing that Interstate 95 tends to back up any day of the week, you need to plan your route and time your departure accordingly. If you want to be at the wedding service by 3:30 PM, and it takes 2.5 hours to get to Philadelphia without traffic, what time should you leave your house? You use the working backwards heuristic to plan the events of your day on a regular basis, probably without even thinking about it.

Another useful heuristic is the practice of accomplishing a large goal or task by breaking it into a series of smaller steps. Students often use this common method to complete a large research project or long essay for school. For example, students typically brainstorm, develop a thesis or main topic, research the chosen topic, organize their information into an outline, write a rough draft, revise and edit the rough draft, develop a final draft, organize the references list, and proofread their work before turning in the project. The large task becomes less overwhelming when it is broken down into a series of small steps.

Everyday Connection

Solving puzzles.

Problem-solving abilities can improve with practice. Many people challenge themselves every day with puzzles and other mental exercises to sharpen their problem-solving skills. Sudoku puzzles appear daily in most newspapers. Typically, a sudoku puzzle is a 9×9 grid. The simple sudoku below ( Figure 7.7 ) is a 4×4 grid. To solve the puzzle, fill in the empty boxes with a single digit: 1, 2, 3, or 4. Here are the rules: The numbers must total 10 in each bolded box, each row, and each column; however, each digit can only appear once in a bolded box, row, and column. Time yourself as you solve this puzzle and compare your time with a classmate.

Here is another popular type of puzzle ( Figure 7.8 ) that challenges your spatial reasoning skills. Connect all nine dots with four connecting straight lines without lifting your pencil from the paper:

Take a look at the “Puzzling Scales” logic puzzle below ( Figure 7.9 ). Sam Loyd, a well-known puzzle master, created and refined countless puzzles throughout his lifetime (Cyclopedia of Puzzles, n.d.).

Pitfalls to Problem Solving

Not all problems are successfully solved, however. What challenges stop us from successfully solving a problem? Imagine a person in a room that has four doorways. One doorway that has always been open in the past is now locked. The person, accustomed to exiting the room by that particular doorway, keeps trying to get out through the same doorway even though the other three doorways are open. The person is stuck—but they just need to go to another doorway, instead of trying to get out through the locked doorway. A mental set is where you persist in approaching a problem in a way that has worked in the past but is clearly not working now.

Functional fixedness is a type of mental set where you cannot perceive an object being used for something other than what it was designed for. Duncker (1945) conducted foundational research on functional fixedness. He created an experiment in which participants were given a candle, a book of matches, and a box of thumbtacks. They were instructed to use those items to attach the candle to the wall so that it did not drip wax onto the table below. Participants had to use functional fixedness to overcome the problem ( Figure 7.10 ). During the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, NASA engineers at Mission Control had to overcome functional fixedness to save the lives of the astronauts aboard the spacecraft. An explosion in a module of the spacecraft damaged multiple systems. The astronauts were in danger of being poisoned by rising levels of carbon dioxide because of problems with the carbon dioxide filters. The engineers found a way for the astronauts to use spare plastic bags, tape, and air hoses to create a makeshift air filter, which saved the lives of the astronauts.

Link to Learning

Check out this Apollo 13 scene about NASA engineers overcoming functional fixedness to learn more.

Researchers have investigated whether functional fixedness is affected by culture. In one experiment, individuals from the Shuar group in Ecuador were asked to use an object for a purpose other than that for which the object was originally intended. For example, the participants were told a story about a bear and a rabbit that were separated by a river and asked to select among various objects, including a spoon, a cup, erasers, and so on, to help the animals. The spoon was the only object long enough to span the imaginary river, but if the spoon was presented in a way that reflected its normal usage, it took participants longer to choose the spoon to solve the problem. (German & Barrett, 2005). The researchers wanted to know if exposure to highly specialized tools, as occurs with individuals in industrialized nations, affects their ability to transcend functional fixedness. It was determined that functional fixedness is experienced in both industrialized and nonindustrialized cultures (German & Barrett, 2005).

In order to make good decisions, we use our knowledge and our reasoning. Often, this knowledge and reasoning is sound and solid. Sometimes, however, we are swayed by biases or by others manipulating a situation. For example, let’s say you and three friends wanted to rent a house and had a combined target budget of $1,600. The realtor shows you only very run-down houses for $1,600 and then shows you a very nice house for $2,000. Might you ask each person to pay more in rent to get the $2,000 home? Why would the realtor show you the run-down houses and the nice house? The realtor may be challenging your anchoring bias. An anchoring bias occurs when you focus on one piece of information when making a decision or solving a problem. In this case, you’re so focused on the amount of money you are willing to spend that you may not recognize what kinds of houses are available at that price point.

The confirmation bias is the tendency to focus on information that confirms your existing beliefs. For example, if you think that your professor is not very nice, you notice all of the instances of rude behavior exhibited by the professor while ignoring the countless pleasant interactions he is involved in on a daily basis. Hindsight bias leads you to believe that the event you just experienced was predictable, even though it really wasn’t. In other words, you knew all along that things would turn out the way they did. Representative bias describes a faulty way of thinking, in which you unintentionally stereotype someone or something; for example, you may assume that your professors spend their free time reading books and engaging in intellectual conversation, because the idea of them spending their time playing volleyball or visiting an amusement park does not fit in with your stereotypes of professors.

Finally, the availability heuristic is a heuristic in which you make a decision based on an example, information, or recent experience that is that readily available to you, even though it may not be the best example to inform your decision . Biases tend to “preserve that which is already established—to maintain our preexisting knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and hypotheses” (Aronson, 1995; Kahneman, 2011). These biases are summarized in Table 7.3 .

Watch this teacher-made music video about cognitive biases to learn more.

Were you able to determine how many marbles are needed to balance the scales in Figure 7.9 ? You need nine. Were you able to solve the problems in Figure 7.7 and Figure 7.8 ? Here are the answers ( Figure 7.11 ).

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Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/psychology-2e/pages/1-introduction
  • Authors: Rose M. Spielman, William J. Jenkins, Marilyn D. Lovett
  • Publisher/website: OpenStax
  • Book title: Psychology 2e
  • Publication date: Apr 22, 2020
  • Location: Houston, Texas
  • Book URL: https://openstax.org/books/psychology-2e/pages/1-introduction
  • Section URL: https://openstax.org/books/psychology-2e/pages/7-3-problem-solving

© Jan 6, 2024 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.

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The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology

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The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology

48 Problem Solving

Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara

  • Published: 03 June 2013
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Problem solving refers to cognitive processing directed at achieving a goal when the problem solver does not initially know a solution method. A problem exists when someone has a goal but does not know how to achieve it. Problems can be classified as routine or nonroutine, and as well defined or ill defined. The major cognitive processes in problem solving are representing, planning, executing, and monitoring. The major kinds of knowledge required for problem solving are facts, concepts, procedures, strategies, and beliefs. Classic theoretical approaches to the study of problem solving are associationism, Gestalt, and information processing. Current issues and suggested future issues include decision making, intelligence and creativity, teaching of thinking skills, expert problem solving, analogical reasoning, mathematical and scientific thinking, everyday thinking, and the cognitive neuroscience of problem solving. Common themes concern the domain specificity of problem solving and a focus on problem solving in authentic contexts.

The study of problem solving begins with defining problem solving, problem, and problem types. This introduction to problem solving is rounded out with an examination of cognitive processes in problem solving, the role of knowledge in problem solving, and historical approaches to the study of problem solving.

Definition of Problem Solving

Problem solving refers to cognitive processing directed at achieving a goal for which the problem solver does not initially know a solution method. This definition consists of four major elements (Mayer, 1992 ; Mayer & Wittrock, 2006 ):

Cognitive —Problem solving occurs within the problem solver’s cognitive system and can only be inferred indirectly from the problem solver’s behavior (including biological changes, introspections, and actions during problem solving). Process —Problem solving involves mental computations in which some operation is applied to a mental representation, sometimes resulting in the creation of a new mental representation. Directed —Problem solving is aimed at achieving a goal. Personal —Problem solving depends on the existing knowledge of the problem solver so that what is a problem for one problem solver may not be a problem for someone who already knows a solution method.

The definition is broad enough to include a wide array of cognitive activities such as deciding which apartment to rent, figuring out how to use a cell phone interface, playing a game of chess, making a medical diagnosis, finding the answer to an arithmetic word problem, or writing a chapter for a handbook. Problem solving is pervasive in human life and is crucial for human survival. Although this chapter focuses on problem solving in humans, problem solving also occurs in nonhuman animals and in intelligent machines.

How is problem solving related to other forms of high-level cognition processing, such as thinking and reasoning? Thinking refers to cognitive processing in individuals but includes both directed thinking (which corresponds to the definition of problem solving) and undirected thinking such as daydreaming (which does not correspond to the definition of problem solving). Thus, problem solving is a type of thinking (i.e., directed thinking).

Reasoning refers to problem solving within specific classes of problems, such as deductive reasoning or inductive reasoning. In deductive reasoning, the reasoner is given premises and must derive a conclusion by applying the rules of logic. For example, given that “A is greater than B” and “B is greater than C,” a reasoner can conclude that “A is greater than C.” In inductive reasoning, the reasoner is given (or has experienced) a collection of examples or instances and must infer a rule. For example, given that X, C, and V are in the “yes” group and x, c, and v are in the “no” group, the reasoning may conclude that B is in “yes” group because it is in uppercase format. Thus, reasoning is a type of problem solving.

Definition of Problem

A problem occurs when someone has a goal but does not know to achieve it. This definition is consistent with how the Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker ( 1945 , p. 1) defined a problem in his classic monograph, On Problem Solving : “A problem arises when a living creature has a goal but does not know how this goal is to be reached.” However, today researchers recognize that the definition should be extended to include problem solving by intelligent machines. This definition can be clarified using an information processing approach by noting that a problem occurs when a situation is in the given state, the problem solver wants the situation to be in the goal state, and there is no obvious way to move from the given state to the goal state (Newell & Simon, 1972 ). Accordingly, the three main elements in describing a problem are the given state (i.e., the current state of the situation), the goal state (i.e., the desired state of the situation), and the set of allowable operators (i.e., the actions the problem solver is allowed to take). The definition of “problem” is broad enough to include the situation confronting a physician who wishes to make a diagnosis on the basis of preliminary tests and a patient examination, as well as a beginning physics student trying to solve a complex physics problem.

Types of Problems

It is customary in the problem-solving literature to make a distinction between routine and nonroutine problems. Routine problems are problems that are so familiar to the problem solver that the problem solver knows a solution method. For example, for most adults, “What is 365 divided by 12?” is a routine problem because they already know the procedure for long division. Nonroutine problems are so unfamiliar to the problem solver that the problem solver does not know a solution method. For example, figuring out the best way to set up a funding campaign for a nonprofit charity is a nonroutine problem for most volunteers. Technically, routine problems do not meet the definition of problem because the problem solver has a goal but knows how to achieve it. Much research on problem solving has focused on routine problems, although most interesting problems in life are nonroutine.

Another customary distinction is between well-defined and ill-defined problems. Well-defined problems have a clearly specified given state, goal state, and legal operators. Examples include arithmetic computation problems or games such as checkers or tic-tac-toe. Ill-defined problems have a poorly specified given state, goal state, or legal operators, or a combination of poorly defined features. Examples include solving the problem of global warming or finding a life partner. Although, ill-defined problems are more challenging, much research in problem solving has focused on well-defined problems.

Cognitive Processes in Problem Solving

The process of problem solving can be broken down into two main phases: problem representation , in which the problem solver builds a mental representation of the problem situation, and problem solution , in which the problem solver works to produce a solution. The major subprocess in problem representation is representing , which involves building a situation model —that is, a mental representation of the situation described in the problem. The major subprocesses in problem solution are planning , which involves devising a plan for how to solve the problem; executing , which involves carrying out the plan; and monitoring , which involves evaluating and adjusting one’s problem solving.

For example, given an arithmetic word problem such as “Alice has three marbles. Sarah has two more marbles than Alice. How many marbles does Sarah have?” the process of representing involves building a situation model in which Alice has a set of marbles, there is set of marbles for the difference between the two girls, and Sarah has a set of marbles that consists of Alice’s marbles and the difference set. In the planning process, the problem solver sets a goal of adding 3 and 2. In the executing process, the problem solver carries out the computation, yielding an answer of 5. In the monitoring process, the problem solver looks over what was done and concludes that 5 is a reasonable answer. In most complex problem-solving episodes, the four cognitive processes may not occur in linear order, but rather may interact with one another. Although some research focuses mainly on the execution process, problem solvers may tend to have more difficulty with the processes of representing, planning, and monitoring.

Knowledge for Problem Solving

An important theme in problem-solving research is that problem-solving proficiency on any task depends on the learner’s knowledge (Anderson et al., 2001 ; Mayer, 1992 ). Five kinds of knowledge are as follows:

Facts —factual knowledge about the characteristics of elements in the world, such as “Sacramento is the capital of California” Concepts —conceptual knowledge, including categories, schemas, or models, such as knowing the difference between plants and animals or knowing how a battery works Procedures —procedural knowledge of step-by-step processes, such as how to carry out long-division computations Strategies —strategic knowledge of general methods such as breaking a problem into parts or thinking of a related problem Beliefs —attitudinal knowledge about how one’s cognitive processing works such as thinking, “I’m good at this”

Although some research focuses mainly on the role of facts and procedures in problem solving, complex problem solving also depends on the problem solver’s concepts, strategies, and beliefs (Mayer, 1992 ).

Historical Approaches to Problem Solving

Psychological research on problem solving began in the early 1900s, as an outgrowth of mental philosophy (Humphrey, 1963 ; Mandler & Mandler, 1964 ). Throughout the 20th century four theoretical approaches developed: early conceptions, associationism, Gestalt psychology, and information processing.

Early Conceptions

The start of psychology as a science can be set at 1879—the year Wilhelm Wundt opened the first world’s psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany, and sought to train the world’s first cohort of experimental psychologists. Instead of relying solely on philosophical speculations about how the human mind works, Wundt sought to apply the methods of experimental science to issues addressed in mental philosophy. His theoretical approach became structuralism —the analysis of consciousness into its basic elements.

Wundt’s main contribution to the study of problem solving, however, was to call for its banishment. According to Wundt, complex cognitive processing was too complicated to be studied by experimental methods, so “nothing can be discovered in such experiments” (Wundt, 1911/1973 ). Despite his admonishments, however, a group of his former students began studying thinking mainly in Wurzburg, Germany. Using the method of introspection, subjects were asked to describe their thought process as they solved word association problems, such as finding the superordinate of “newspaper” (e.g., an answer is “publication”). Although the Wurzburg group—as they came to be called—did not produce a new theoretical approach, they found empirical evidence that challenged some of the key assumptions of mental philosophy. For example, Aristotle had proclaimed that all thinking involves mental imagery, but the Wurzburg group was able to find empirical evidence for imageless thought .

Associationism

The first major theoretical approach to take hold in the scientific study of problem solving was associationism —the idea that the cognitive representations in the mind consist of ideas and links between them and that cognitive processing in the mind involves following a chain of associations from one idea to the next (Mandler & Mandler, 1964 ; Mayer, 1992 ). For example, in a classic study, E. L. Thorndike ( 1911 ) placed a hungry cat in what he called a puzzle box—a wooden crate in which pulling a loop of string that hung from overhead would open a trap door to allow the cat to escape to a bowl of food outside the crate. Thorndike placed the cat in the puzzle box once a day for several weeks. On the first day, the cat engaged in many extraneous behaviors such as pouncing against the wall, pushing its paws through the slats, and meowing, but on successive days the number of extraneous behaviors tended to decrease. Overall, the time required to get out of the puzzle box decreased over the course of the experiment, indicating the cat was learning how to escape.

Thorndike’s explanation for how the cat learned to solve the puzzle box problem is based on an associationist view: The cat begins with a habit family hierarchy —a set of potential responses (e.g., pouncing, thrusting, meowing, etc.) all associated with the same stimulus (i.e., being hungry and confined) and ordered in terms of strength of association. When placed in the puzzle box, the cat executes its strongest response (e.g., perhaps pouncing against the wall), but when it fails, the strength of the association is weakened, and so on for each unsuccessful action. Eventually, the cat gets down to what was initially a weak response—waving its paw in the air—but when that response leads to accidentally pulling the string and getting out, it is strengthened. Over the course of many trials, the ineffective responses become weak and the successful response becomes strong. Thorndike refers to this process as the law of effect : Responses that lead to dissatisfaction become less associated with the situation and responses that lead to satisfaction become more associated with the situation. According to Thorndike’s associationist view, solving a problem is simply a matter of trial and error and accidental success. A major challenge to assocationist theory concerns the nature of transfer—that is, where does a problem solver find a creative solution that has never been performed before? Associationist conceptions of cognition can be seen in current research, including neural networks, connectionist models, and parallel distributed processing models (Rogers & McClelland, 2004 ).

Gestalt Psychology

The Gestalt approach to problem solving developed in the 1930s and 1940s as a counterbalance to the associationist approach. According to the Gestalt approach, cognitive representations consist of coherent structures (rather than individual associations) and the cognitive process of problem solving involves building a coherent structure (rather than strengthening and weakening of associations). For example, in a classic study, Kohler ( 1925 ) placed a hungry ape in a play yard that contained several empty shipping crates and a banana attached overhead but out of reach. Based on observing the ape in this situation, Kohler noted that the ape did not randomly try responses until one worked—as suggested by Thorndike’s associationist view. Instead, the ape stood under the banana, looked up at it, looked at the crates, and then in a flash of insight stacked the crates under the bananas as a ladder, and walked up the steps in order to reach the banana.

According to Kohler, the ape experienced a sudden visual reorganization in which the elements in the situation fit together in a way to solve the problem; that is, the crates could become a ladder that reduces the distance to the banana. Kohler referred to the underlying mechanism as insight —literally seeing into the structure of the situation. A major challenge of Gestalt theory is its lack of precision; for example, naming a process (i.e., insight) is not the same as explaining how it works. Gestalt conceptions can be seen in modern research on mental models and schemas (Gentner & Stevens, 1983 ).

Information Processing

The information processing approach to problem solving developed in the 1960s and 1970s and was based on the influence of the computer metaphor—the idea that humans are processors of information (Mayer, 2009 ). According to the information processing approach, problem solving involves a series of mental computations—each of which consists of applying a process to a mental representation (such as comparing two elements to determine whether they differ).

In their classic book, Human Problem Solving , Newell and Simon ( 1972 ) proposed that problem solving involved a problem space and search heuristics . A problem space is a mental representation of the initial state of the problem, the goal state of the problem, and all possible intervening states (based on applying allowable operators). Search heuristics are strategies for moving through the problem space from the given to the goal state. Newell and Simon focused on means-ends analysis , in which the problem solver continually sets goals and finds moves to accomplish goals.

Newell and Simon used computer simulation as a research method to test their conception of human problem solving. First, they asked human problem solvers to think aloud as they solved various problems such as logic problems, chess, and cryptarithmetic problems. Then, based on an information processing analysis, Newell and Simon created computer programs that solved these problems. In comparing the solution behavior of humans and computers, they found high similarity, suggesting that the computer programs were solving problems using the same thought processes as humans.

An important advantage of the information processing approach is that problem solving can be described with great clarity—as a computer program. An important limitation of the information processing approach is that it is most useful for describing problem solving for well-defined problems rather than ill-defined problems. The information processing conception of cognition lives on as a keystone of today’s cognitive science (Mayer, 2009 ).

Classic Issues in Problem Solving

Three classic issues in research on problem solving concern the nature of transfer (suggested by the associationist approach), the nature of insight (suggested by the Gestalt approach), and the role of problem-solving heuristics (suggested by the information processing approach).

Transfer refers to the effects of prior learning on new learning (or new problem solving). Positive transfer occurs when learning A helps someone learn B. Negative transfer occurs when learning A hinders someone from learning B. Neutral transfer occurs when learning A has no effect on learning B. Positive transfer is a central goal of education, but research shows that people often do not transfer what they learned to solving problems in new contexts (Mayer, 1992 ; Singley & Anderson, 1989 ).

Three conceptions of the mechanisms underlying transfer are specific transfer , general transfer , and specific transfer of general principles . Specific transfer refers to the idea that learning A will help someone learn B only if A and B have specific elements in common. For example, learning Spanish may help someone learn Latin because some of the vocabulary words are similar and the verb conjugation rules are similar. General transfer refers to the idea that learning A can help someone learn B even they have nothing specifically in common but A helps improve the learner’s mind in general. For example, learning Latin may help people learn “proper habits of mind” so they are better able to learn completely unrelated subjects as well. Specific transfer of general principles is the idea that learning A will help someone learn B if the same general principle or solution method is required for both even if the specific elements are different.

In a classic study, Thorndike and Woodworth ( 1901 ) found that students who learned Latin did not subsequently learn bookkeeping any better than students who had not learned Latin. They interpreted this finding as evidence for specific transfer—learning A did not transfer to learning B because A and B did not have specific elements in common. Modern research on problem-solving transfer continues to show that people often do not demonstrate general transfer (Mayer, 1992 ). However, it is possible to teach people a general strategy for solving a problem, so that when they see a new problem in a different context they are able to apply the strategy to the new problem (Judd, 1908 ; Mayer, 2008 )—so there is also research support for the idea of specific transfer of general principles.

Insight refers to a change in a problem solver’s mind from not knowing how to solve a problem to knowing how to solve it (Mayer, 1995 ; Metcalfe & Wiebe, 1987 ). In short, where does the idea for a creative solution come from? A central goal of problem-solving research is to determine the mechanisms underlying insight.

The search for insight has led to five major (but not mutually exclusive) explanatory mechanisms—insight as completing a schema, insight as suddenly reorganizing visual information, insight as reformulation of a problem, insight as removing mental blocks, and insight as finding a problem analog (Mayer, 1995 ). Completing a schema is exemplified in a study by Selz (Fridja & de Groot, 1982 ), in which people were asked to think aloud as they solved word association problems such as “What is the superordinate for newspaper?” To solve the problem, people sometimes thought of a coordinate, such as “magazine,” and then searched for a superordinate category that subsumed both terms, such as “publication.” According to Selz, finding a solution involved building a schema that consisted of a superordinate and two subordinate categories.

Reorganizing visual information is reflected in Kohler’s ( 1925 ) study described in a previous section in which a hungry ape figured out how to stack boxes as a ladder to reach a banana hanging above. According to Kohler, the ape looked around the yard and found the solution in a flash of insight by mentally seeing how the parts could be rearranged to accomplish the goal.

Reformulating a problem is reflected in a classic study by Duncker ( 1945 ) in which people are asked to think aloud as they solve the tumor problem—how can you destroy a tumor in a patient without destroying surrounding healthy tissue by using rays that at sufficient intensity will destroy any tissue in their path? In analyzing the thinking-aloud protocols—that is, transcripts of what the problem solvers said—Duncker concluded that people reformulated the goal in various ways (e.g., avoid contact with healthy tissue, immunize healthy tissue, have ray be weak in healthy tissue) until they hit upon a productive formulation that led to the solution (i.e., concentrating many weak rays on the tumor).

Removing mental blocks is reflected in classic studies by Duncker ( 1945 ) in which solving a problem involved thinking of a novel use for an object, and by Luchins ( 1942 ) in which solving a problem involved not using a procedure that had worked well on previous problems. Finding a problem analog is reflected in classic research by Wertheimer ( 1959 ) in which learning to find the area of a parallelogram is supported by the insight that one could cut off the triangle on one side and place it on the other side to form a rectangle—so a parallelogram is really a rectangle in disguise. The search for insight along each of these five lines continues in current problem-solving research.

Heuristics are problem-solving strategies, that is, general approaches to how to solve problems. Newell and Simon ( 1972 ) suggested three general problem-solving heuristics for moving from a given state to a goal state: random trial and error , hill climbing , and means-ends analysis . Random trial and error involves randomly selecting a legal move and applying it to create a new problem state, and repeating that process until the goal state is reached. Random trial and error may work for simple problems but is not efficient for complex ones. Hill climbing involves selecting the legal move that moves the problem solver closer to the goal state. Hill climbing will not work for problems in which the problem solver must take a move that temporarily moves away from the goal as is required in many problems.

Means-ends analysis involves creating goals and seeking moves that can accomplish the goal. If a goal cannot be directly accomplished, a subgoal is created to remove one or more obstacles. Newell and Simon ( 1972 ) successfully used means-ends analysis as the search heuristic in a computer program aimed at general problem solving, that is, solving a diverse collection of problems. However, people may also use specific heuristics that are designed to work for specific problem-solving situations (Gigerenzer, Todd, & ABC Research Group, 1999 ; Kahneman & Tversky, 1984 ).

Current and Future Issues in Problem Solving

Eight current issues in problem solving involve decision making, intelligence and creativity, teaching of thinking skills, expert problem solving, analogical reasoning, mathematical and scientific problem solving, everyday thinking, and the cognitive neuroscience of problem solving.

Decision Making

Decision making refers to the cognitive processing involved in choosing between two or more alternatives (Baron, 2000 ; Markman & Medin, 2002 ). For example, a decision-making task may involve choosing between getting $240 for sure or having a 25% change of getting $1000. According to economic theories such as expected value theory, people should chose the second option, which is worth $250 (i.e., .25 x $1000) rather than the first option, which is worth $240 (1.00 x $240), but psychological research shows that most people prefer the first option (Kahneman & Tversky, 1984 ).

Research on decision making has generated three classes of theories (Markman & Medin, 2002 ): descriptive theories, such as prospect theory (Kahneman & Tversky), which are based on the ideas that people prefer to overweight the cost of a loss and tend to overestimate small probabilities; heuristic theories, which are based on the idea that people use a collection of short-cut strategies such as the availability heuristic (Gigerenzer et al., 1999 ; Kahneman & Tversky, 2000 ); and constructive theories, such as mental accounting (Kahneman & Tversky, 2000 ), in which people build a narrative to justify their choices to themselves. Future research is needed to examine decision making in more realistic settings.

Intelligence and Creativity

Although researchers do not have complete consensus on the definition of intelligence (Sternberg, 1990 ), it is reasonable to view intelligence as the ability to learn or adapt to new situations. Fluid intelligence refers to the potential to solve problems without any relevant knowledge, whereas crystallized intelligence refers to the potential to solve problems based on relevant prior knowledge (Sternberg & Gregorenko, 2003 ). As people gain more experience in a field, their problem-solving performance depends more on crystallized intelligence (i.e., domain knowledge) than on fluid intelligence (i.e., general ability) (Sternberg & Gregorenko, 2003 ). The ability to monitor and manage one’s cognitive processing during problem solving—which can be called metacognition —is an important aspect of intelligence (Sternberg, 1990 ). Research is needed to pinpoint the knowledge that is needed to support intelligent performance on problem-solving tasks.

Creativity refers to the ability to generate ideas that are original (i.e., other people do not think of the same idea) and functional (i.e., the idea works; Sternberg, 1999 ). Creativity is often measured using tests of divergent thinking —that is, generating as many solutions as possible for a problem (Guilford, 1967 ). For example, the uses test asks people to list as many uses as they can think of for a brick. Creativity is different from intelligence, and it is at the heart of creative problem solving—generating a novel solution to a problem that the problem solver has never seen before. An important research question concerns whether creative problem solving depends on specific knowledge or creativity ability in general.

Teaching of Thinking Skills

How can people learn to be better problem solvers? Mayer ( 2008 ) proposes four questions concerning teaching of thinking skills:

What to teach —Successful programs attempt to teach small component skills (such as how to generate and evaluate hypotheses) rather than improve the mind as a single monolithic skill (Covington, Crutchfield, Davies, & Olton, 1974 ). How to teach —Successful programs focus on modeling the process of problem solving rather than solely reinforcing the product of problem solving (Bloom & Broder, 1950 ). Where to teach —Successful programs teach problem-solving skills within the specific context they will be used rather than within a general course on how to solve problems (Nickerson, 1999 ). When to teach —Successful programs teaching higher order skills early rather than waiting until lower order skills are completely mastered (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988 ).

Overall, research on teaching of thinking skills points to the domain specificity of problem solving; that is, successful problem solving depends on the problem solver having domain knowledge that is relevant to the problem-solving task.

Expert Problem Solving

Research on expertise is concerned with differences between how experts and novices solve problems (Ericsson, Feltovich, & Hoffman, 2006 ). Expertise can be defined in terms of time (e.g., 10 years of concentrated experience in a field), performance (e.g., earning a perfect score on an assessment), or recognition (e.g., receiving a Nobel Prize or becoming Grand Master in chess). For example, in classic research conducted in the 1940s, de Groot ( 1965 ) found that chess experts did not have better general memory than chess novices, but they did have better domain-specific memory for the arrangement of chess pieces on the board. Chase and Simon ( 1973 ) replicated this result in a better controlled experiment. An explanation is that experts have developed schemas that allow them to chunk collections of pieces into a single configuration.

In another landmark study, Larkin et al. ( 1980 ) compared how experts (e.g., physics professors) and novices (e.g., first-year physics students) solved textbook physics problems about motion. Experts tended to work forward from the given information to the goal, whereas novices tended to work backward from the goal to the givens using a means-ends analysis strategy. Experts tended to store their knowledge in an integrated way, whereas novices tended to store their knowledge in isolated fragments. In another study, Chi, Feltovich, and Glaser ( 1981 ) found that experts tended to focus on the underlying physics concepts (such as conservation of energy), whereas novices tended to focus on the surface features of the problem (such as inclined planes or springs). Overall, research on expertise is useful in pinpointing what experts know that is different from what novices know. An important theme is that experts rely on domain-specific knowledge rather than solely general cognitive ability.

Analogical Reasoning

Analogical reasoning occurs when people solve one problem by using their knowledge about another problem (Holyoak, 2005 ). For example, suppose a problem solver learns how to solve a problem in one context using one solution method and then is given a problem in another context that requires the same solution method. In this case, the problem solver must recognize that the new problem has structural similarity to the old problem (i.e., it may be solved by the same method), even though they do not have surface similarity (i.e., the cover stories are different). Three steps in analogical reasoning are recognizing —seeing that a new problem is similar to a previously solved problem; abstracting —finding the general method used to solve the old problem; and mapping —using that general method to solve the new problem.

Research on analogical reasoning shows that people often do not recognize that a new problem can be solved by the same method as a previously solved problem (Holyoak, 2005 ). However, research also shows that successful analogical transfer to a new problem is more likely when the problem solver has experience with two old problems that have the same underlying structural features (i.e., they are solved by the same principle) but different surface features (i.e., they have different cover stories) (Holyoak, 2005 ). This finding is consistent with the idea of specific transfer of general principles as described in the section on “Transfer.”

Mathematical and Scientific Problem Solving

Research on mathematical problem solving suggests that five kinds of knowledge are needed to solve arithmetic word problems (Mayer, 2008 ):

Factual knowledge —knowledge about the characteristics of problem elements, such as knowing that there are 100 cents in a dollar Schematic knowledge —knowledge of problem types, such as being able to recognize time-rate-distance problems Strategic knowledge —knowledge of general methods, such as how to break a problem into parts Procedural knowledge —knowledge of processes, such as how to carry our arithmetic operations Attitudinal knowledge —beliefs about one’s mathematical problem-solving ability, such as thinking, “I am good at this”

People generally possess adequate procedural knowledge but may have difficulty in solving mathematics problems because they lack factual, schematic, strategic, or attitudinal knowledge (Mayer, 2008 ). Research is needed to pinpoint the role of domain knowledge in mathematical problem solving.

Research on scientific problem solving shows that people harbor misconceptions, such as believing that a force is needed to keep an object in motion (McCloskey, 1983 ). Learning to solve science problems involves conceptual change, in which the problem solver comes to recognize that previous conceptions are wrong (Mayer, 2008 ). Students can be taught to engage in scientific reasoning such as hypothesis testing through direct instruction in how to control for variables (Chen & Klahr, 1999 ). A central theme of research on scientific problem solving concerns the role of domain knowledge.

Everyday Thinking

Everyday thinking refers to problem solving in the context of one’s life outside of school. For example, children who are street vendors tend to use different procedures for solving arithmetic problems when they are working on the streets than when they are in school (Nunes, Schlieman, & Carraher, 1993 ). This line of research highlights the role of situated cognition —the idea that thinking always is shaped by the physical and social context in which it occurs (Robbins & Aydede, 2009 ). Research is needed to determine how people solve problems in authentic contexts.

Cognitive Neuroscience of Problem Solving

The cognitive neuroscience of problem solving is concerned with the brain activity that occurs during problem solving. For example, using fMRI brain imaging methodology, Goel ( 2005 ) found that people used the language areas of the brain to solve logical reasoning problems presented in sentences (e.g., “All dogs are pets…”) and used the spatial areas of the brain to solve logical reasoning problems presented in abstract letters (e.g., “All D are P…”). Cognitive neuroscience holds the potential to make unique contributions to the study of problem solving.

Problem solving has always been a topic at the fringe of cognitive psychology—too complicated to study intensively but too important to completely ignore. Problem solving—especially in realistic environments—is messy in comparison to studying elementary processes in cognition. The field remains fragmented in the sense that topics such as decision making, reasoning, intelligence, expertise, mathematical problem solving, everyday thinking, and the like are considered to be separate topics, each with its own separate literature. Yet some recurring themes are the role of domain-specific knowledge in problem solving and the advantages of studying problem solving in authentic contexts.

Future Directions

Some important issues for future research include the three classic issues examined in this chapter—the nature of problem-solving transfer (i.e., How are people able to use what they know about previous problem solving to help them in new problem solving?), the nature of insight (e.g., What is the mechanism by which a creative solution is constructed?), and heuristics (e.g., What are some teachable strategies for problem solving?). In addition, future research in problem solving should continue to pinpoint the role of domain-specific knowledge in problem solving, the nature of cognitive ability in problem solving, how to help people develop proficiency in solving problems, and how to provide aids for problem solving.

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Further Reading

Baron, J. ( 2008 ). Thinking and deciding (4th ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Duncker, K. ( 1945 ). On problem solving. Psychological Monographs , 58(3) (Whole No. 270).

Holyoak, K. J. , & Morrison, R. G. ( 2005 ). The Cambridge handbook of thinking and reasoning . New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mayer, R. E. , & Wittrock, M. C. ( 2006 ). Problem solving. In P. A. Alexander & P. H. Winne (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (2nd ed., pp. 287–304). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sternberg, R. J. , & Ben-Zeev, T. ( 2001 ). Complex cognition: The psychology of human thought . New York: Oxford University Press.

Weisberg, R. W. ( 2006 ). Creativity . New York: Wiley.

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The Process of Problem Solving

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  • Experimental Psychology
  • Problem Solving

four steps of problem solving psychology

In a 2013 article published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology , Ngar Yin Louis Lee (Chinese University of Hong Kong) and APS William James Fellow Philip N. Johnson-Laird (Princeton University) examined the ways people develop strategies to solve related problems. In a series of three experiments, the researchers asked participants to solve series of matchstick problems.

In matchstick problems, participants are presented with an array of joined squares. Each square in the array is comprised of separate pieces. Participants are asked to remove a certain number of pieces from the array while still maintaining a specific number of intact squares. Matchstick problems are considered to be fairly sophisticated, as there is generally more than one solution, several different tactics can be used to complete the task, and the types of tactics that are appropriate can change depending on the configuration of the array.

Louis Lee and Johnson-Laird began by examining what influences the tactics people use when they are first confronted with the matchstick problem. They found that initial problem-solving tactics were constrained by perceptual features of the array, with participants solving symmetrical problems and problems with salient solutions faster. Participants frequently used tactics that involved symmetry and salience even when other solutions that did not involve these features existed.

To examine how problem solving develops over time, the researchers had participants solve a series of matchstick problems while verbalizing their problem-solving thought process. The findings from this second experiment showed that people tend to go through two different stages when solving a series of problems.

People begin their problem-solving process in a generative manner during which they explore various tactics — some successful and some not. Then they use their experience to narrow down their choices of tactics, focusing on those that are the most successful. The point at which people begin to rely on this newfound tactical knowledge to create their strategic moves indicates a shift into a more evaluative stage of problem solving.

In the third and last experiment, participants completed a set of matchstick problems that could be solved using similar tactics and then solved several problems that required the use of novel tactics.  The researchers found that participants often had trouble leaving their set of successful tactics behind and shifting to new strategies.

From the three studies, the researchers concluded that when people tackle a problem, their initial moves may be constrained by perceptual components of the problem. As they try out different tactics, they hone in and settle on the ones that are most efficient; however, this deduced knowledge can in turn come to constrain players’ generation of moves — something that can make it difficult to switch to new tactics when required.

These findings help expand our understanding of the role of reasoning and deduction in problem solving and of the processes involved in the shift from less to more effective problem-solving strategies.

Reference Louis Lee, N. Y., Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2013). Strategic changes in problem solving. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 25 , 165–173. doi: 10.1080/20445911.2012.719021

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4 Main problem-solving strategies

problem solving

In Psychology, you get to read about a ton of therapies. It’s mind-boggling how different theorists have looked at human nature differently and have come up with different, often somewhat contradictory, theoretical approaches.

Yet, you can’t deny the kernel of truth that’s there in all of them. All therapies, despite being different, have one thing in common- they all aim to solve people’s problems. They all aim to equip people with problem-solving strategies to help them deal with their life problems.

Problem-solving is really at the core of everything we do. Throughout our lives, we’re constantly trying to solve one problem or another. When we can’t, all sorts of psychological problems take hold. Getting good at solving problems is a fundamental life skill.

Problem-solving stages

What problem-solving does is take you from an initial state (A) where a problem exists to a final or goal state (B), where the problem no longer exists.

To move from A to B, you need to perform some actions called operators. Engaging in the right operators moves you from A to B. So, the stages of problem-solving are:

  • Initial state

The problem itself can either be well-defined or ill-defined. A well-defined problem is one where you can clearly see where you are (A), where you want to go (B), and what you need to do to get there (engaging the right operators).

For example, feeling hungry and wanting to eat can be seen as a problem, albeit a simple one for many. Your initial state is hunger (A) and your final state is satisfaction or no hunger (B). Going to the kitchen and finding something to eat is using the right operator.

In contrast, ill-defined or complex problems are those where one or more of the three problem solving stages aren’t clear. For example, if your goal is to bring about world peace, what is it exactly that you want to do?

It’s been rightly said that a problem well-defined is a problem half-solved. Whenever you face an ill-defined problem, the first thing you need to do is get clear about all the three stages.

Often, people will have a decent idea of where they are (A) and where they want to be (B). What they usually get stuck on is finding the right operators.

Initial theory in problem-solving

When people first attempt to solve a problem, i.e. when they first engage their operators, they often have an initial theory of solving the problem. As I mentioned in my article on overcoming challenges for complex problems, this initial theory is often wrong.

But, at the time, it’s usually the result of the best information the individual can gather about the problem. When this initial theory fails, the problem-solver gets more data, and he refines the theory. Eventually, he finds an actual theory i.e. a theory that works. This finally allows him to engage the right operators to move from A to B.

Problem-solving strategies

These are operators that a problem solver tries to move from A to B. There are several problem-solving strategies but the main ones are:

  • Trial and error

1. Algorithms

When you follow a step-by-step procedure to solve a problem or reach a goal, you’re using an algorithm. If you follow the steps exactly, you’re guaranteed to find the solution. The drawback of this strategy is that it can get cumbersome and time-consuming for large problems.

Say I hand you a 200-page book and ask you to read out to me what’s written on page 100. If you start from page 1 and keep turning the pages, you’ll eventually reach page 100. There’s no question about it. But the process is time-consuming. So instead you use what’s called a heuristic.

2. Heuristics

Heuristics are rules of thumb that people use to simplify problems. They’re often based on memories from past experiences. They cut down the number of steps needed to solve a problem, but they don’t always guarantee a solution. Heuristics save us time and effort if they work.

You know that page 100 lies in the middle of the book. Instead of starting from page one, you try to open the book in the middle. Of course, you may not hit page 100, but you can get really close with just a couple of tries.

If you open page 90, for instance, you can then algorithmically move from 90 to 100. Thus, you can use a combination of heuristics and algorithms to solve the problem. In real life, we often solve problems like this.

When police are looking for suspects in an investigation, they try to narrow down the problem similarly. Knowing the suspect is 6 feet tall isn’t enough, as there could be thousands of people out there with that height.

Knowing the suspect is 6 feet tall, male, wears glasses, and has blond hair narrows down the problem significantly.

3. Trial and error

When you have an initial theory to solve a problem, you try it out. If you fail, you refine or change your theory and try again. This is the trial-and-error process of solving problems. Behavioral and cognitive trial and error often go hand in hand, but for many problems, we start with behavioural trial and error until we’re forced to think.

Say you’re in a maze, trying to find your way out. You try one route without giving it much thought and you find it leads to nowhere. Then you try another route and fail again. This is behavioural trial and error because you aren’t putting any thought into your trials. You’re just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks.

This isn’t an ideal strategy but can be useful in situations where it’s impossible to get any information about the problem without doing some trials.

Then, when you have enough information about the problem, you shuffle that information in your mind to find a solution. This is cognitive trial and error or analytical thinking. Behavioral trial and error can take a lot of time, so using cognitive trial and error as much as possible is advisable. You got to sharpen your axe before you cut the tree.

When solving complex problems, people get frustrated after having tried several operators that didn’t work. They abandon their problem and go on with their routine activities. Suddenly, they get a flash of insight that makes them confident they can now solve the problem.

I’ve done an entire article on the underlying mechanics of insight . Long story short, when you take a step back from your problem, it helps you see things in a new light. You make use of associations that were previously unavailable to you.

You get more puzzle pieces to work with and this increases the odds of you finding a path from A to B, i.e. finding operators that work.

Pilot problem-solving

No matter what problem-solving strategy you employ, it’s all about finding out what works. Your actual theory tells you what operators will take you from A to B. Complex problems don’t reveal their actual theories easily solely because they are complex.

Therefore, the first step to solving a complex problem is getting as clear as you can about what you’re trying to accomplish- collecting as much information as you can about the problem.

This gives you enough raw materials to formulate an initial theory. We want our initial theory to be as close to an actual theory as possible. This saves time and resources.

Solving a complex problem can mean investing a lot of resources. Therefore, it is recommended you verify your initial theory if you can. I call this pilot problem-solving.

Before businesses invest in making a product, they sometimes distribute free versions to a small sample of potential customers to ensure their target audience will be receptive to the product.

Before making a series of TV episodes, TV show producers often release pilot episodes to figure out whether the show can take off.

Before conducting a large study, researchers do a pilot study to survey a small sample of the population to determine if the study is worth carrying out.

The same ‘testing the waters’ approach needs to be applied to solving any complex problem you might be facing. Is your problem worth investing a lot of resources in? In management, we’re constantly taught about Return On Investment (ROI). The ROI should justify the investment.

If the answer is yes, go ahead and formulate your initial theory based on extensive research. Find a way to verify your initial theory. You need this reassurance that you’re going in the right direction, especially for complex problems that take a long time to solve.

memories of murder movie scene

Getting your causal thinking right

Problem solving boils down to getting your causal thinking right. Finding solutions is all about finding out what works, i.e. finding operators that take you from A to B. To succeed, you need to be confident in your initial theory (If I do X and Y, they’ll lead me to B). You need to be sure that doing X and Y will lead you to B- doing X and Y will cause B.

All obstacles to problem-solving or goal-accomplishing are rooted in faulty causal thinking leading to not engaging the right operators. When your causal thinking is on point, you’ll have no problem engaging the right operators.

As you can imagine, for complex problems, getting our causal thinking right isn’t easy. That’s why we need to formulate an initial theory and refine it over time.

I like to think of problem-solving as the ability to project the present into the past or into the future. When you’re solving problems, you’re basically looking at your present situation and asking yourself two questions:

“What caused this?” (Projecting present into the past)

“What will this cause?” (Projecting present into the future)

The first question is more relevant to problem-solving and the second to goal-accomplishing.

If you find yourself in a mess , you need to answer the “What caused this?” question correctly. For the operators you’re currently engaging to reach your goal, ask yourself, “What will this cause?” If you think they cannot cause B, it’s time to refine your initial theory.

hanan parvez

Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology). My work has been featured in Forbes , Business Insider , Reader’s Digest , and Entrepreneur . When I’m not thinking about human behavior, I… No wait! I’m always thinking about human behavior!

Denise Cummins Ph.D.

How to Solve Problems Like an Expert

It's not so much what you know as how easily you can retrieve what you know..

Posted September 7, 2013

You have a problem when your current situation differs from your desired goal. You want to be rich, but your checking account balance is circling the drain. You want to date that gorgeous person, but you get tongue-tied whenever you even think about it. You are running late for work, and your car won’t start. In each case, what you want and what you have are decidedly different.

Problem solving is nothing more and nothing less searching for means to reduce the differences between your goal state and your current state. Yes, that’s right: All problem solving, at bottom, is search. When there is a clear procedure that will take you from the one to the other, we call that a well-defined problem. Making scrambled eggs is a well-defined problem. For the first, you simply follow a recipe, and voila, you’ve got breakfast.

If there is no clear procedure, we call that an ill-defined problem. Unfortunately, most of life’s important problems are ill defined. How do you make enough money to save for retirement , how do you avoid war, or how do you get that girl or guy to go out with you? These are all ill-defined problems because they don’t have clear goal states (how much is “enough” for retirement?) or they don’t have clear solution paths (how do you attract the interest of someone you find attractive?).

In 1945, the brilliant mathematician, George Pólya (1887–1985) wrote the quintessential text for solving problems, aptly titled How to Solve It. Here is how he summarized the problem-solving process.

1. First, make sure you understand the problem. You do this by developing a representation of the essential aspects of the problem. You do that by searching your knowledge base for information that seems to you to be solution-relevant.

2. After understanding, then make a plan for solving the problem. This will also usually involve searching one’s knowledge base for solutions that are appropriate for the problem as represented.

3. Carry out the plan by executing your solutions.

4. Look back on your work and ask “how could it be better?”

That is how it should be done. But most people make one huge mistake that derails the entire process, making it far less likely that they will succeed. What is that mistake?

They skip the first step.

Regardless of the domain, inexperienced problem-solvers tend to jump right to the solution stage of problem solving, with typically disastrous consequences. They often use a trial-and-error strategy in which the first solution that comes to mind is put into play. Because they didn’t take the time to fully understand the problem, their solution attempts fail when foreseeable glitches arise.

In contrast, experts tend to spend more time developing a full understanding of the problem, comparing what they currently know about the problem with what they need to know in order to get a complete picture of the situation. Because they spend more time in the problem representation stage, they are more likely to derive successful solutions, and to spend less time overall in generating a successful solution.

Here are three tips for executing step one like an expert.

1. Organize knowledge correctly. Often, novices have all the knowledge they need to solve the problem at hand. They just can’t get to it because their knowledge is organized in ways that make it difficult to see the connection between the current problem and what they already know.

Experts organize their knowledge in problem schemas that include relevant information about a type of problem and the procedures for solving problems of that type. This means that when experts think about problems, relevant information is automatically activated in memory , along with relevant solution procedures. In contrast, when novices think about a problem, their knowledge is too general and too scattered throughout memory, making problem-solving a tedious trial-and-error search. For example, a novice salesperson will focus on the general goal of “make the sale”, and will apply sales techniques in willy-nilly or fixed fashion to reach that goal. An experienced salesperson will focus on the specific goal of understanding what the customer needs and wants, and in developing a trust relationship with the customer. As a result, the experienced salesperson spends less time “working” the customer or showing them things in which they have no interest.

four steps of problem solving psychology

2. Ask the right questions. If you’ve ever done a Google search, you know that the quality of the search results depends entirely on the quality of the keywords you use. Garbage in, garbage out. This in a nutshell, is the key to developing a strong understanding of a problem—asking the right questions.

Experts are more likely to ask the right questions because their domain-specific knowledge is organized more efficiently. Continuing with the previous example, an expert salesperson’s schema is organized around understanding customer wants and needs. As a result, he or she will spend more time asking specific questions about those needs and wants, and then tailoring subsequent choices to match the answers given. Sometimes the customer isn’t aware that there are product features that may be attractive to them. For example, they may focus on price yet be unaware that a higher priced item carries a better warranty. Because the salesperson has taken the time to impress upon the customer that their needs and wants matter, a relationship of trust is established that makes it easier for the salesperson to introduce these relevant features without putting the customer off. In contrast, novice salespeople will often deluge the customer with more product features than they can possibly remember and process, or will try hard-sell techniques that create an atmosphere of distrust .

3. Work forward from known to unknown. Because of the way expert knowledge is organized, experts solve problems by working forward from the information given (or information obtained) to arrive at a viable solution. Novices, on the other hand, tend to work backwards because they are focused more at arriving at a quick solution that at ensuring that they fully understand the problem. As a result, the typically have incomplete problem-solving schemas that are full of irrelevant information. This slows down the problem-solving process, and makes it less likely that a viable solution will be reached—or remembered!

For three more tips on how to be a better problem solver, see this article Dr. Art Markman.

References: Pólya, George (1957). How to Solve It. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Dr. Denise Cummins is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think (2012, Cambridge University Press).

Denise Cummins Ph.D.

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D. , is the author of Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science , and Evolution of Mind.

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Thinking and Intelligence

Problem Solving

OpenStaxCollege

[latexpage]

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe problem solving strategies
  • Define algorithm and heuristic
  • Explain some common roadblocks to effective problem solving

People face problems every day—usually, multiple problems throughout the day. Sometimes these problems are straightforward: To double a recipe for pizza dough, for example, all that is required is that each ingredient in the recipe be doubled. Sometimes, however, the problems we encounter are more complex. For example, say you have a work deadline, and you must mail a printed copy of a report to your supervisor by the end of the business day. The report is time-sensitive and must be sent overnight. You finished the report last night, but your printer will not work today. What should you do? First, you need to identify the problem and then apply a strategy for solving the problem.

PROBLEM-SOLVING STRATEGIES

When you are presented with a problem—whether it is a complex mathematical problem or a broken printer, how do you solve it? Before finding a solution to the problem, the problem must first be clearly identified. After that, one of many problem solving strategies can be applied, hopefully resulting in a solution.

A problem-solving strategy is a plan of action used to find a solution. Different strategies have different action plans associated with them ( [link] ). For example, a well-known strategy is trial and error . The old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” describes trial and error. In terms of your broken printer, you could try checking the ink levels, and if that doesn’t work, you could check to make sure the paper tray isn’t jammed. Or maybe the printer isn’t actually connected to your laptop. When using trial and error, you would continue to try different solutions until you solved your problem. Although trial and error is not typically one of the most time-efficient strategies, it is a commonly used one.

Another type of strategy is an algorithm. An algorithm is a problem-solving formula that provides you with step-by-step instructions used to achieve a desired outcome (Kahneman, 2011). You can think of an algorithm as a recipe with highly detailed instructions that produce the same result every time they are performed. Algorithms are used frequently in our everyday lives, especially in computer science. When you run a search on the Internet, search engines like Google use algorithms to decide which entries will appear first in your list of results. Facebook also uses algorithms to decide which posts to display on your newsfeed. Can you identify other situations in which algorithms are used?

A heuristic is another type of problem solving strategy. While an algorithm must be followed exactly to produce a correct result, a heuristic is a general problem-solving framework (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). You can think of these as mental shortcuts that are used to solve problems. A “rule of thumb” is an example of a heuristic. Such a rule saves the person time and energy when making a decision, but despite its time-saving characteristics, it is not always the best method for making a rational decision. Different types of heuristics are used in different types of situations, but the impulse to use a heuristic occurs when one of five conditions is met (Pratkanis, 1989):

  • When one is faced with too much information
  • When the time to make a decision is limited
  • When the decision to be made is unimportant
  • When there is access to very little information to use in making the decision
  • When an appropriate heuristic happens to come to mind in the same moment

Working backwards is a useful heuristic in which you begin solving the problem by focusing on the end result. Consider this example: You live in Washington, D.C. and have been invited to a wedding at 4 PM on Saturday in Philadelphia. Knowing that Interstate 95 tends to back up any day of the week, you need to plan your route and time your departure accordingly. If you want to be at the wedding service by 3:30 PM, and it takes 2.5 hours to get to Philadelphia without traffic, what time should you leave your house? You use the working backwards heuristic to plan the events of your day on a regular basis, probably without even thinking about it.

Another useful heuristic is the practice of accomplishing a large goal or task by breaking it into a series of smaller steps. Students often use this common method to complete a large research project or long essay for school. For example, students typically brainstorm, develop a thesis or main topic, research the chosen topic, organize their information into an outline, write a rough draft, revise and edit the rough draft, develop a final draft, organize the references list, and proofread their work before turning in the project. The large task becomes less overwhelming when it is broken down into a series of small steps.

Problem-solving abilities can improve with practice. Many people challenge themselves every day with puzzles and other mental exercises to sharpen their problem-solving skills. Sudoku puzzles appear daily in most newspapers. Typically, a sudoku puzzle is a 9×9 grid. The simple sudoku below ( [link] ) is a 4×4 grid. To solve the puzzle, fill in the empty boxes with a single digit: 1, 2, 3, or 4. Here are the rules: The numbers must total 10 in each bolded box, each row, and each column; however, each digit can only appear once in a bolded box, row, and column. Time yourself as you solve this puzzle and compare your time with a classmate.

A four column by four row Sudoku puzzle is shown. The top left cell contains the number 3. The top right cell contains the number 2. The bottom right cell contains the number 1. The bottom left cell contains the number 4. The cell at the intersection of the second row and the second column contains the number 4. The cell to the right of that contains the number 1. The cell below the cell containing the number 1 contains the number 2. The cell to the left of the cell containing the number 2 contains the number 3.

Here is another popular type of puzzle ( [link] ) that challenges your spatial reasoning skills. Connect all nine dots with four connecting straight lines without lifting your pencil from the paper:

A square shaped outline contains three rows and three columns of dots with equal space between them.

Take a look at the “Puzzling Scales” logic puzzle below ( [link] ). Sam Loyd, a well-known puzzle master, created and refined countless puzzles throughout his lifetime (Cyclopedia of Puzzles, n.d.).

A puzzle involving a scale is shown. At the top of the figure it reads: “Sam Loyds Puzzling Scales.” The first row of the puzzle shows a balanced scale with 3 blocks and a top on the left and 12 marbles on the right. Below this row it reads: “Since the scales now balance.” The next row of the puzzle shows a balanced scale with just the top on the left, and 1 block and 8 marbles on the right. Below this row it reads: “And balance when arranged this way.” The third row shows an unbalanced scale with the top on the left side, which is much lower than the right side. The right side is empty. Below this row it reads: “Then how many marbles will it require to balance with that top?”

PITFALLS TO PROBLEM SOLVING

Not all problems are successfully solved, however. What challenges stop us from successfully solving a problem? Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Imagine a person in a room that has four doorways. One doorway that has always been open in the past is now locked. The person, accustomed to exiting the room by that particular doorway, keeps trying to get out through the same doorway even though the other three doorways are open. The person is stuck—but she just needs to go to another doorway, instead of trying to get out through the locked doorway. A mental set is where you persist in approaching a problem in a way that has worked in the past but is clearly not working now.

Functional fixedness is a type of mental set where you cannot perceive an object being used for something other than what it was designed for. During the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, NASA engineers at Mission Control had to overcome functional fixedness to save the lives of the astronauts aboard the spacecraft. An explosion in a module of the spacecraft damaged multiple systems. The astronauts were in danger of being poisoned by rising levels of carbon dioxide because of problems with the carbon dioxide filters. The engineers found a way for the astronauts to use spare plastic bags, tape, and air hoses to create a makeshift air filter, which saved the lives of the astronauts.

four steps of problem solving psychology

Check out this Apollo 13 scene where the group of NASA engineers are given the task of overcoming functional fixedness.

Researchers have investigated whether functional fixedness is affected by culture. In one experiment, individuals from the Shuar group in Ecuador were asked to use an object for a purpose other than that for which the object was originally intended. For example, the participants were told a story about a bear and a rabbit that were separated by a river and asked to select among various objects, including a spoon, a cup, erasers, and so on, to help the animals. The spoon was the only object long enough to span the imaginary river, but if the spoon was presented in a way that reflected its normal usage, it took participants longer to choose the spoon to solve the problem. (German & Barrett, 2005). The researchers wanted to know if exposure to highly specialized tools, as occurs with individuals in industrialized nations, affects their ability to transcend functional fixedness. It was determined that functional fixedness is experienced in both industrialized and nonindustrialized cultures (German & Barrett, 2005).

In order to make good decisions, we use our knowledge and our reasoning. Often, this knowledge and reasoning is sound and solid. Sometimes, however, we are swayed by biases or by others manipulating a situation. For example, let’s say you and three friends wanted to rent a house and had a combined target budget of $1,600. The realtor shows you only very run-down houses for $1,600 and then shows you a very nice house for $2,000. Might you ask each person to pay more in rent to get the $2,000 home? Why would the realtor show you the run-down houses and the nice house? The realtor may be challenging your anchoring bias. An anchoring bias occurs when you focus on one piece of information when making a decision or solving a problem. In this case, you’re so focused on the amount of money you are willing to spend that you may not recognize what kinds of houses are available at that price point.

The confirmation bias is the tendency to focus on information that confirms your existing beliefs. For example, if you think that your professor is not very nice, you notice all of the instances of rude behavior exhibited by the professor while ignoring the countless pleasant interactions he is involved in on a daily basis. Hindsight bias leads you to believe that the event you just experienced was predictable, even though it really wasn’t. In other words, you knew all along that things would turn out the way they did. Representative bias describes a faulty way of thinking, in which you unintentionally stereotype someone or something; for example, you may assume that your professors spend their free time reading books and engaging in intellectual conversation, because the idea of them spending their time playing volleyball or visiting an amusement park does not fit in with your stereotypes of professors.

Finally, the availability heuristic is a heuristic in which you make a decision based on an example, information, or recent experience that is that readily available to you, even though it may not be the best example to inform your decision . Biases tend to “preserve that which is already established—to maintain our preexisting knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and hypotheses” (Aronson, 1995; Kahneman, 2011). These biases are summarized in [link] .

Please visit this site to see a clever music video that a high school teacher made to explain these and other cognitive biases to his AP psychology students.

Were you able to determine how many marbles are needed to balance the scales in [link] ? You need nine. Were you able to solve the problems in [link] and [link] ? Here are the answers ( [link] ).

The first puzzle is a Sudoku grid of 16 squares (4 rows of 4 squares) is shown. Half of the numbers were supplied to start the puzzle and are colored blue, and half have been filled in as the puzzle’s solution and are colored red. The numbers in each row of the grid, left to right, are as follows. Row 1:  blue 3, red 1, red 4, blue 2. Row 2: red 2, blue 4, blue 1, red 3. Row 3: red 1, blue 3, blue 2, red 4. Row 4: blue 4, red 2, red 3, blue 1.The second puzzle consists of 9 dots arranged in 3 rows of 3 inside of a square. The solution, four straight lines made without lifting the pencil, is shown in a red line with arrows indicating the direction of movement. In order to solve the puzzle, the lines must extend beyond the borders of the box. The four connecting lines are drawn as follows. Line 1 begins at the top left dot, proceeds through the middle and right dots of the top row, and extends to the right beyond the border of the square. Line 2 extends from the end of line 1, through the right dot of the horizontally centered row, through the middle dot of the bottom row, and beyond the square’s border ending in the space beneath the left dot of the bottom row. Line 3 extends from the end of line 2 upwards through the left dots of the bottom, middle, and top rows. Line 4 extends from the end of line 3 through the middle dot in the middle row and ends at the right dot of the bottom row.

Many different strategies exist for solving problems. Typical strategies include trial and error, applying algorithms, and using heuristics. To solve a large, complicated problem, it often helps to break the problem into smaller steps that can be accomplished individually, leading to an overall solution. Roadblocks to problem solving include a mental set, functional fixedness, and various biases that can cloud decision making skills.

Review Questions

A specific formula for solving a problem is called ________.

  • an algorithm
  • a heuristic
  • a mental set
  • trial and error

A mental shortcut in the form of a general problem-solving framework is called ________.

Which type of bias involves becoming fixated on a single trait of a problem?

  • anchoring bias
  • confirmation bias
  • representative bias
  • availability bias

Which type of bias involves relying on a false stereotype to make a decision?

Critical Thinking Questions

What is functional fixedness and how can overcoming it help you solve problems?

Functional fixedness occurs when you cannot see a use for an object other than the use for which it was intended. For example, if you need something to hold up a tarp in the rain, but only have a pitchfork, you must overcome your expectation that a pitchfork can only be used for garden chores before you realize that you could stick it in the ground and drape the tarp on top of it to hold it up.

How does an algorithm save you time and energy when solving a problem?

An algorithm is a proven formula for achieving a desired outcome. It saves time because if you follow it exactly, you will solve the problem without having to figure out how to solve the problem. It is a bit like not reinventing the wheel.

Personal Application Question

Which type of bias do you recognize in your own decision making processes? How has this bias affected how you’ve made decisions in the past and how can you use your awareness of it to improve your decisions making skills in the future?

Problem Solving Copyright © 2014 by OpenStaxCollege is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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What Is Problem-Solving Therapy?

Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.

four steps of problem solving psychology

Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania.

four steps of problem solving psychology

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Problem-Solving Therapy Techniques

How effective is problem-solving therapy, things to consider, how to get started.

Problem-solving therapy is a brief intervention that provides people with the tools they need to identify and solve problems that arise from big and small life stressors. It aims to improve your overall quality of life and reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness.

Problem-solving therapy can be used to treat depression , among other conditions. It can be administered by a doctor or mental health professional and may be combined with other treatment approaches.

At a Glance

Problem-solving therapy is a short-term treatment used to help people who are experiencing depression, stress, PTSD, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and other mental health problems develop the tools they need to deal with challenges. This approach teaches people to identify problems, generate solutions, and implement those solutions. Let's take a closer look at how problem-solving therapy can help people be more resilient and adaptive in the face of stress.

Problem-solving therapy is based on a model that takes into account the importance of real-life problem-solving. In other words, the key to managing the impact of stressful life events is to know how to address issues as they arise. Problem-solving therapy is very practical in its approach and is only concerned with the present, rather than delving into your past.

This form of therapy can take place one-on-one or in a group format and may be offered in person or online via telehealth . Sessions can be anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours long. 

Key Components

There are two major components that make up the problem-solving therapy framework:

  • Applying a positive problem-solving orientation to your life
  • Using problem-solving skills

A positive problem-solving orientation means viewing things in an optimistic light, embracing self-efficacy , and accepting the idea that problems are a normal part of life. Problem-solving skills are behaviors that you can rely on to help you navigate conflict, even during times of stress. This includes skills like:

  • Knowing how to identify a problem
  • Defining the problem in a helpful way
  • Trying to understand the problem more deeply
  • Setting goals related to the problem
  • Generating alternative, creative solutions to the problem
  • Choosing the best course of action
  • Implementing the choice you have made
  • Evaluating the outcome to determine next steps

Problem-solving therapy is all about training you to become adaptive in your life so that you will start to see problems as challenges to be solved instead of insurmountable obstacles. It also means that you will recognize the action that is required to engage in effective problem-solving techniques.

Planful Problem-Solving

One problem-solving technique, called planful problem-solving, involves following a series of steps to fix issues in a healthy, constructive way:

  • Problem definition and formulation : This step involves identifying the real-life problem that needs to be solved and formulating it in a way that allows you to generate potential solutions.
  • Generation of alternative solutions : This stage involves coming up with various potential solutions to the problem at hand. The goal in this step is to brainstorm options to creatively address the life stressor in ways that you may not have previously considered.
  • Decision-making strategies : This stage involves discussing different strategies for making decisions as well as identifying obstacles that may get in the way of solving the problem at hand.
  • Solution implementation and verification : This stage involves implementing a chosen solution and then verifying whether it was effective in addressing the problem.

Other Techniques

Other techniques your therapist may go over include:

  • Problem-solving multitasking , which helps you learn to think clearly and solve problems effectively even during times of stress
  • Stop, slow down, think, and act (SSTA) , which is meant to encourage you to become more emotionally mindful when faced with conflict
  • Healthy thinking and imagery , which teaches you how to embrace more positive self-talk while problem-solving

What Problem-Solving Therapy Can Help With

Problem-solving therapy addresses life stress issues and focuses on helping you find solutions to concrete issues. This approach can be applied to problems associated with various psychological and physiological symptoms.

Mental Health Issues

Problem-solving therapy may help address mental health issues, like:

  • Chronic stress due to accumulating minor issues
  • Complications associated with traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Emotional distress
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Problems associated with a chronic disease like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes
  • Self-harm and feelings of hopelessness
  • Substance use
  • Suicidal ideation

Specific Life Challenges

This form of therapy is also helpful for dealing with specific life problems, such as:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Dissatisfaction at work
  • Everyday life stressors
  • Family problems
  • Financial difficulties
  • Relationship conflicts

Your doctor or mental healthcare professional will be able to advise whether problem-solving therapy could be helpful for your particular issue. In general, if you are struggling with specific, concrete problems that you are having trouble finding solutions for, problem-solving therapy could be helpful for you.

Benefits of Problem-Solving Therapy

The skills learned in problem-solving therapy can be helpful for managing all areas of your life. These can include:

  • Being able to identify which stressors trigger your negative emotions (e.g., sadness, anger)
  • Confidence that you can handle problems that you face
  • Having a systematic approach on how to deal with life's problems
  • Having a toolbox of strategies to solve the issues you face
  • Increased confidence to find creative solutions
  • Knowing how to identify which barriers will impede your progress
  • Knowing how to manage emotions when they arise
  • Reduced avoidance and increased action-taking
  • The ability to accept life problems that can't be solved
  • The ability to make effective decisions
  • The development of patience (realizing that not all problems have a "quick fix")

Problem-solving therapy can help people feel more empowered to deal with the problems they face in their lives. Rather than feeling overwhelmed when stressors begin to take a toll, this therapy introduces new coping skills that can boost self-efficacy and resilience .

Other Types of Therapy

Other similar types of therapy include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) . While these therapies work to change thinking and behaviors, they work a bit differently. Both CBT and SFBT are less structured than problem-solving therapy and may focus on broader issues. CBT focuses on identifying and changing maladaptive thoughts, and SFBT works to help people look for solutions and build self-efficacy based on strengths.

This form of therapy was initially developed to help people combat stress through effective problem-solving, and it was later adapted to address clinical depression specifically. Today, much of the research on problem-solving therapy deals with its effectiveness in treating depression.

Problem-solving therapy has been shown to help depression in: 

  • Older adults
  • People coping with serious illnesses like cancer

Problem-solving therapy also appears to be effective as a brief treatment for depression, offering benefits in as little as six to eight sessions with a therapist or another healthcare professional. This may make it a good option for someone unable to commit to a lengthier treatment for depression.

Problem-solving therapy is not a good fit for everyone. It may not be effective at addressing issues that don't have clear solutions, like seeking meaning or purpose in life. Problem-solving therapy is also intended to treat specific problems, not general habits or thought patterns .

In general, it's also important to remember that problem-solving therapy is not a primary treatment for mental disorders. If you are living with the symptoms of a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia , you may need additional treatment with evidence-based approaches for your particular concern.

Problem-solving therapy is best aimed at someone who has a mental or physical issue that is being treated separately, but who also has life issues that go along with that problem that has yet to be addressed.

For example, it could help if you can't clean your house or pay your bills because of your depression, or if a cancer diagnosis is interfering with your quality of life.

Your doctor may be able to recommend therapists in your area who utilize this approach, or they may offer it themselves as part of their practice. You can also search for a problem-solving therapist with help from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Society of Clinical Psychology .

If receiving problem-solving therapy from a doctor or mental healthcare professional is not an option for you, you could also consider implementing it as a self-help strategy using a workbook designed to help you learn problem-solving skills on your own.

During your first session, your therapist may spend some time explaining their process and approach. They may ask you to identify the problem you’re currently facing, and they’ll likely discuss your goals for therapy .

Keep In Mind

Problem-solving therapy may be a short-term intervention that's focused on solving a specific issue in your life. If you need further help with something more pervasive, it can also become a longer-term treatment option.

Get Help Now

We've tried, tested, and written unbiased reviews of the best online therapy programs including Talkspace, BetterHelp, and ReGain. Find out which option is the best for you.

Shang P, Cao X, You S, Feng X, Li N, Jia Y. Problem-solving therapy for major depressive disorders in older adults: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials .  Aging Clin Exp Res . 2021;33(6):1465-1475. doi:10.1007/s40520-020-01672-3

Cuijpers P, Wit L de, Kleiboer A, Karyotaki E, Ebert DD. Problem-solving therapy for adult depression: An updated meta-analysis . Eur Psychiatry . 2018;48(1):27-37. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2017.11.006

Nezu AM, Nezu CM, D'Zurilla TJ. Problem-Solving Therapy: A Treatment Manual . New York; 2013. doi:10.1891/9780826109415.0001

Owens D, Wright-Hughes A, Graham L, et al. Problem-solving therapy rather than treatment as usual for adults after self-harm: a pragmatic, feasibility, randomised controlled trial (the MIDSHIPS trial) .  Pilot Feasibility Stud . 2020;6:119. doi:10.1186/s40814-020-00668-0

Sorsdahl K, Stein DJ, Corrigall J, et al. The efficacy of a blended motivational interviewing and problem solving therapy intervention to reduce substance use among patients presenting for emergency services in South Africa: A randomized controlled trial . Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy . 2015;10(1):46. doi:doi.org/10.1186/s13011-015-0042-1

Margolis SA, Osborne P, Gonzalez JS. Problem solving . In: Gellman MD, ed. Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine . Springer International Publishing; 2020:1745-1747. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-39903-0_208

Kirkham JG, Choi N, Seitz DP. Meta-analysis of problem solving therapy for the treatment of major depressive disorder in older adults . Int J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2016;31(5):526-535. doi:10.1002/gps.4358

Garand L, Rinaldo DE, Alberth MM, et al. Effects of problem solving therapy on mental health outcomes in family caregivers of persons with a new diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or early dementia: A randomized controlled trial . Am J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2014;22(8):771-781. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2013.07.007

Noyes K, Zapf AL, Depner RM, et al. Problem-solving skills training in adult cancer survivors: Bright IDEAS-AC pilot study .  Cancer Treat Res Commun . 2022;31:100552. doi:10.1016/j.ctarc.2022.100552

Albert SM, King J, Anderson S, et al. Depression agency-based collaborative: effect of problem-solving therapy on risk of common mental disorders in older adults with home care needs . The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry . 2019;27(6):619-624. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2019.01.002

By Arlin Cuncic, MA Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.

Chapter 7: Thinking and Intelligence

Solving problems.

People face problems every day—usually, multiple problems throughout the day. Sometimes these problems are straightforward: To double a recipe for pizza dough, for example, all that is required is that each ingredient in the recipe be doubled. Sometimes, however, the problems we encounter are more complex. For example, say you have a work deadline, and you must mail a printed copy of a report to your supervisor by the end of the business day. The report is time-sensitive and must be sent overnight. You finished the report last night, but your printer will not work today. What should you do? First, you need to identify the problem and then apply a strategy for solving the problem.

Problem-Solving Strategies

When you are presented with a problem—whether it is a complex mathematical problem or a broken printer, how do you solve it? Before finding a solution to the problem, the problem must first be clearly identified. After that, one of many problem-solving strategies can be applied, hopefully resulting in a solution.

Video 1. Problem Solving explains strategies used for solving problems.

A problem-solving strategy is a plan of action used to find a solution. Different strategies have different action plans associated with them. For example, a well-known strategy is trial and error . The old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” describes trial and error. In terms of your broken printer, you could try checking the ink levels, and if that doesn’t work, you could check to make sure the paper tray isn’t jammed. Or maybe the printer isn’t actually connected to your laptop. When using trial and error, you would continue to try different solutions until you solved your problem. Although trial and error is not typically one of the most time-efficient strategies, it is a commonly used one.

Another type of strategy is an algorithm. An algorithm is a problem-solving formula that provides you with step-by-step instructions used to achieve the desired outcome (Kahneman, 2011). You can think of an algorithm as a recipe with highly detailed instructions that produce the same result every time they are performed. Algorithms are used frequently in our everyday lives, especially in computer science. When you run a search on the Internet, search engines like Google use algorithms to decide which entries will appear first in your list of results. Facebook also uses algorithms to decide which posts to display on your newsfeed. Can you identify other situations in which algorithms are used?

A heuristic is another type of problem solving strategy. While an algorithm must be followed exactly to produce a correct result, a heuristic is a general problem-solving framework (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). You can think of these as mental shortcuts that are used to solve problems. A “rule of thumb” is an example of a heuristic. Such a rule saves the person time and energy when making a decision, but despite its time-saving characteristics, it is not always the best method for making a rational decision. Different types of heuristics are used in different types of situations, but the impulse to use a heuristic occurs when one of five conditions is met (Pratkanis, 1989):

  • When one is faced with too much information
  • When the time to make a decision is limited
  • When the decision to be made is unimportant
  • When there is access to very little information to use in making the decision
  • When an appropriate heuristic happens to come to mind in the same moment

Working backward is a useful heuristic in which you begin solving the problem by focusing on the end result. Consider this example: You live in Washington, D.C., and have been invited to a wedding at 4 PM on Saturday in Philadelphia. Knowing that Interstate 95 tends to back up any day of the week, you need to plan your route and time your departure accordingly. If you want to be at the wedding service by 3:30 PM, and it takes 2.5 hours to get to Philadelphia without traffic, what time should you leave your house? You use the working backward heuristic to plan the events of your day on a regular basis, probably without even thinking about it.

Video 2.  What problem-solving method could you use to solve Einstein’s famous riddle?

Another useful heuristic is the practice of accomplishing a large goal or task by breaking it into a series of smaller steps. Students often use this common method to complete a large research project or long essay for school. For example, students typically brainstorm, develop a thesis or main topic, research the chosen topic, organize their information into an outline, write a rough draft, revise and edit the rough draft, develop a final draft, organize the references list, and proofread their work before turning in the project. The large task becomes less overwhelming when it is broken down into a series of small steps.

Everyday Connections: Solving Puzzles

Problem-solving abilities can improve with practice. Many people challenge themselves every day with puzzles and other mental exercises to sharpen their problem-solving skills. Sudoku puzzles appear daily in most newspapers. Typically, a sudoku puzzle is a 9×9 grid. The simple sudoku below (Figure 1) is a 4×4 grid. To solve the puzzle, fill in the empty boxes with a single digit: 1, 2, 3, or 4. Here are the rules: The numbers must total 10 in each bolded box, each row, and each column; however, each digit can only appear once in a bolded box, row, and column. Time yourself as you solve this puzzle and compare your time with a classmate.

A four column by four row Sudoku puzzle is shown. The top left cell contains the number 3. The top right cell contains the number 2. The bottom right cell contains the number 1. The bottom left cell contains the number 4. The cell at the intersection of the second row and the second column contains the number 4. The cell to the right of that contains the number 1. The cell below the cell containing the number 1 contains the number 2. The cell to the left of the cell containing the number 2 contains the number 3.

Figure 1 . How long did it take you to solve this sudoku puzzle? (You can see the answer at the end of this section.)

Here is another popular type of puzzle that challenges your spatial reasoning skills. Connect all nine dots with four connecting straight lines without lifting your pencil from the paper:

A square shaped outline contains three rows and three columns of dots with equal space between them.

Figure 2. Did you figure it out? (The answer is at the end of this section.) Once you understand how to crack this puzzle, you won’t forget.

Take a look at the “Puzzling Scales” logic puzzle below (Figure 3). Sam Loyd, a well-known puzzle master, created and refined countless puzzles throughout his lifetime (Cyclopedia of Puzzles, n.d.).

A puzzle involving a scale is shown. At the top of the figure it reads: “Sam Loyds Puzzling Scales.” The first row of the puzzle shows a balanced scale with 3 blocks and a top on the left and 12 marbles on the right. Below this row it reads: “Since the scales now balance.” The next row of the puzzle shows a balanced scale with just the top on the left, and 1 block and 8 marbles on the right. Below this row it reads: “And balance when arranged this way.” The third row shows an unbalanced scale with the top on the left side, which is much lower than the right side. The right side is empty. Below this row it reads: “Then how many marbles will it require to balance with that top?”

Figure 3 . The puzzle reads, “Since the scales now balance…and balance when arranged this way, then how many marbles will it require to balance with that top?

Were you able to determine how many marbles are needed to balance the scales in the Puzzling Scales? You need nine. Were you able to solve the other problems above? Here are the answers:

The first puzzle is a Sudoku grid of 16 squares (4 rows of 4 squares) is shown. Half of the numbers were supplied to start the puzzle and are colored blue, and half have been filled in as the puzzle’s solution and are colored red. The numbers in each row of the grid, left to right, are as follows. Row 1: blue 3, red 1, red 4, blue 2. Row 2: red 2, blue 4, blue 1, red 3. Row 3: red 1, blue 3, blue 2, red 4. Row 4: blue 4, red 2, red 3, blue 1.The second puzzle consists of 9 dots arranged in 3 rows of 3 inside of a square. The solution, four straight lines made without lifting the pencil, is shown in a red line with arrows indicating the direction of movement. In order to solve the puzzle, the lines must extend beyond the borders of the box. The four connecting lines are drawn as follows. Line 1 begins at the top left dot, proceeds through the middle and right dots of the top row, and extends to the right beyond the border of the square. Line 2 extends from the end of line 1, through the right dot of the horizontally centered row, through the middle dot of the bottom row, and beyond the square’s border ending in the space beneath the left dot of the bottom row. Line 3 extends from the end of line 2 upwards through the left dots of the bottom, middle, and top rows. Line 4 extends from the end of line 3 through the middle dot in the middle row and ends at the right dot of the bottom row.

Pitfalls to Problem-Solving

Not all problems are successfully solved, however. What challenges stop us from successfully solving a problem?

Video 3.   Cognitive Biases: What They Are , Why They’re Important provides an introduction to the many cognitive biases that prevent us from always thinking clearly and rationally.

Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Imagine a person in a room that has four doorways. One doorway that has always been open in the past is now locked. The person, accustomed to exiting the room by that particular doorway, keeps trying to get out through the same doorway even though the other three doorways are open. The person is stuck—but she just needs to go to another doorway, instead of trying to get out through the locked doorway. A mental set is where you persist in approaching a problem in a way that has worked in the past but is clearly not working now.  Functional fixedness is a type of mental set where you cannot perceive an object being used for something other than what it was designed for. During the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, NASA engineers at Mission Control had to overcome functional fixedness to save the lives of the astronauts aboard the spacecraft. An explosion in a module of the spacecraft damaged multiple systems. The astronauts were in danger of being poisoned by rising levels of carbon dioxide because of problems with the carbon dioxide filters. The engineers found a way for the astronauts to use spare plastic bags, tape, and air hoses to create a makeshift air filter, which saved the lives of the astronauts.

Link to Learning

Check out this Apollo 13 scene where a group of NASA engineers is given the task of overcoming functional fixedness.

Researchers have investigated whether functional fixedness is affected by culture. In one experiment, individuals from the Shuar group in Ecuador were asked to use an object for a purpose other than that for which the object was originally intended. For example, the participants were told a story about a bear and a rabbit that were separated by a river and asked to select among various objects, including a spoon, a cup, erasers, and so on, to help the animals. The spoon was the only object long enough to span the imaginary river, but if the spoon was presented in a way that reflected its normal usage, it took participants longer to choose the spoon to solve the problem. (German & Barrett, 2005). The researchers wanted to know if exposure to highly specialized tools, as occurs with individuals in industrialized nations, affects their ability to transcend functional fixedness. It was determined that functional fixedness is experienced in both industrialized and nonindustrialized cultures (German & Barrett, 2005).

In order to make good decisions, we use our knowledge and our reasoning. Often, this knowledge and reasoning is sound and solid. Sometimes, however, we are swayed by biases or by others manipulating a situation. For example, let’s say you and three friends wanted to rent a house and had a combined target budget of $1,600. The realtor shows you only very run-down houses for $1,600 and then shows you a very nice house for $2,000. Might you ask each person to pay more in rent to get the $2,000 home? Why would the realtor show you the run-down houses and the nice house? The realtor may be challenging your anchoring bias. An anchoring bias occurs when you focus on one piece of information when making a decision or solving a problem. In this case, you’re so focused on the amount of money you are willing to spend that you may not recognize what kinds of houses are available at that price point.

Confirmation bias   is the tendency to focus on information that confirms your existing beliefs. For example, if you think that your professor is not very nice, you notice all of the instances of rude behavior exhibited by the professor while ignoring the countless pleasant interactions he is involved in on a daily basis. This bias proves that first impressions do matter and that we tend to look for information to confirm our initial judgments of others.

Video 4.  Watch this video from the Big Think to learn more about confirmation bias.

Hindsight bias leads you to believe that the event you just experienced was predictable, even though it really wasn’t. In other words, you knew all along that things would turn out the way they did. Representative bias describes a faulty way of thinking, in which you unintentionally stereotype someone or something; for example, you may assume that your professors spend their free time reading books and engaging in intellectual conversation, because the idea of them spending their time playing volleyball or visiting an amusement park does not fit in with your stereotypes of professors.

Finally, the availability heuristic is a heuristic in which you make a decision based on an example, information, or recent experience that is that readily available to you, even though it may not be the best example to inform your decision . To use a common example, would you guess there are more murders or more suicides in America each year? When asked, most people would guess there are more murders. In truth, there are twice as many suicides as there are murders each year. However, murders seem more common because we hear a lot more about murders on an average day. Unless someone we know or someone famous takes their own life, it does not make the news. Murders, on the other hand, we see in the news every day. This leads to the erroneous assumption that the easier it is to think of instances of something, the more often that thing occurs.

Video 5.  Watch the following video for an example of the availability heuristic.

Biases tend to “preserve that which is already established—to maintain our preexisting knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and hypotheses” (Aronson, 1995; Kahneman, 2011). These biases are summarized in Table 2 below.

Learn more about heuristics and common biases through the article, “ 8 Common Thinking Mistakes Our Brains Make Every Day and How to Prevent Them ” by  Belle Beth Cooper.

You can also watch this clever music video explaining these and other cognitive biases.

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COMMENTS

  1. 7.3 Problem-Solving

    Processes relating to problem solving include problem finding also known as problem analysis, problem shaping where the organization of the problem occurs, generating alternative strategies, implementation of attempted solutions, and verification of the selected solution.

  2. The Problem-Solving Process

    1. Identifying the Problem While it may seem like an obvious step, identifying the problem is not always as simple as it sounds. In some cases, people might mistakenly identify the wrong source of a problem, which will make attempts to solve it inefficient or even useless.

  3. Problem-Solving Strategies and Obstacles

    The problem-solving process involves: Discovery of the problem Deciding to tackle the issue Seeking to understand the problem more fully Researching available options or solutions Taking action to resolve the issue Before problem-solving can occur, it is important to first understand the exact nature of the problem itself.

  4. Psychological Steps Involved in Problem Solving

    1. Identifying the Problem Identifying the problem seems like the obvious first stem, but it's not exactly as simple as it sounds. People might identify the wrong source of a problem, which will render the steps thus carried on useless.

  5. Problem-Solving Strategies: Definition and 5 Techniques to Try

    1. Trial and error One of the most common problem-solving strategies is trial and error. In other words, you try different solutions until you find one that works. For example, say the...

  6. The Psychology of Problem Solving

    The Psychology of Problem Solving is divided into four parts. Following an introduction that reviews the nature of problems and the history and methods of the field, Part II focuses on individual differences in, and the influence of, the abilities and skills that humans bring to problem situations. Part III examines motivational and emotional ...

  7. 7.3 Problem Solving

    Learning Objectives By the end of this section, you will be able to: Describe problem solving strategies Define algorithm and heuristic Explain some common roadblocks to effective problem solving and decision making People face problems every day—usually, multiple problems throughout the day.

  8. Problem Solving

    The major cognitive processes in problem solving are representing, planning, executing, and monitoring. The major kinds of knowledge required for problem solving are facts, concepts, procedures, strategies, and beliefs. Classic theoretical approaches to the study of problem solving are associationism, Gestalt, and information processing.

  9. The Process of Problem Solving

    In a series of three experiments, the researchers asked participants to solve series of matchstick problems. In matchstick problems, participants are presented with an array of joined squares. Each square in the array is comprised of separate pieces. Participants are asked to remove a certain number of pieces from the array while still ...

  10. 4 Main problem-solving strategies

    Goal state The problem itself can either be well-defined or ill-defined. A well-defined problem is one where you can clearly see where you are (A), where you want to go (B), and what you need to do to get there (engaging the right operators). For example, feeling hungry and wanting to eat can be seen as a problem, albeit a simple one for many.

  11. What is Problem Solving? Steps, Process & Techniques

    1. Define the problem Diagnose the situation so that your focus is on the problem, not just its symptoms. Helpful problem-solving techniques include using flowcharts to identify the expected steps of a process and cause-and-effect diagrams to define and analyze root causes. The sections below help explain key problem-solving steps.

  12. How to Solve Problems Like an Expert

    Here are three tips for executing step one like an expert. 1. Organize knowledge correctly. ... This slows down the problem-solving process, and makes it less likely that a viable solution will be ...

  13. PDF What do we need to know about the 4-step problem solving process?

    How do we ensure fidelity of implementation of the 4-step problem solving process? In addition to monitoring the fidelity with which instruction and intervention are delivered, and the ... School Psychology, 32(1), 1-14. Telzrow, C., McNamara, K., & Hollinger, C. (2000). Fidelity of problem-solving and relationship to student

  14. Problem Solving

    Solving Puzzles. Problem-solving abilities can improve with practice. Many people challenge themselves every day with puzzles and other mental exercises to sharpen their problem-solving skills. Sudoku puzzles appear daily in most newspapers. Typically, a sudoku puzzle is a 9×9 grid. The simple sudoku below ( [link]) is a 4×4 grid.

  15. Problem-Solving Therapy: Definition, Techniques, and Efficacy

    Things to Consider Problem-solving therapy is a brief intervention that provides people with the tools they need to identify and solve problems that arise from big and small life stressors. It aims to improve your overall quality of life and reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness.

  16. The easy 4 step problem-solving process (+ examples)

    Ed Latimore Writer, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast Step 1: What's the problem? Step 2: What do you need to know? Step 3: What do you already know? Step 4: What's the relationship between the two? A recap of the 4 steps of the simple problem-solving process

  17. How to Solve a Problem in Four Steps: The IDEA Model

    DecisionSkills 22.3K subscribers Subscribe Subscribed 8K 559K views 9 years ago A highly sought after skill, learn a simple yet effective four step problem solving process using the concept...

  18. PDF The 4-Step Problem-Solving Process

    Step 1: Goal Identification (Problem Identification), "What do we want students to know and be able to do?" A. How does problem identification work when some students are receiving instruction in a brick-and-mortar environment, and others in a virtual environment?

  19. Problem Solving

    What should you do? First, you need to identify the problem and then apply a strategy for solving the problem. PROBLEM-SOLVING STRATEGIES When you are presented with a problem—whether it is a complex mathematical problem or a broken printer, how do you solve it? Before finding a solution to the problem, the problem must first be clearly identified.

  20. PSY110 week 4 discussion

    Psy110 v6 wk4 problem solving worksheet; DF 1 PSY 110 - DF1 week 1; PSY 211 Comparing Classical and Operant Conditioning 1; PSY 210 Psychology and Health Problems 1; PSY 210 Parenting Styles and Development 1; PSY 210 Final Project Case Study 1

  21. Psy110 v6 wk4 problem solving worksheet (1).2 complete

    Step 1: Identify: Determine what problem or challenge you are In Column 1, identify the work- or school-related problem or challenge you would like to solve. In Column 2, describe the effects this problem has on your life (i., the symptoms of the problem). In Column 3, explain the challenges or barriers you face that contribute to this problem.

  22. Psychology CH. 7 Flashcards

    The process of manipulating information mentally by: 1.) forming concepts. 2.) solving problems. 3.) making decisions. 4.) reflecting critically or creatively. Concept. Mental representations of categories of items or ideas, based on experience. Natural Concepts.

  23. Solving Problems

    Many people challenge themselves every day with puzzles and other mental exercises to sharpen their problem-solving skills. Sudoku puzzles appear daily in most newspapers. Typically, a sudoku puzzle is a 9×9 grid. The simple sudoku below (Figure 1) is a 4×4 grid. To solve the puzzle, fill in the empty boxes with a single digit: 1, 2, 3, or 4.