From organizing your DVD collection to deciding to buy a house, problem-solving makes up a large part of daily life. Problems can range from small (solving a single math equation on your homework assignment) to very large (planning your future career).
In cognitive psychology, the term problem-solving refers to the mental process that people go through to discover, analyze and solve problems. This involves all of the steps in the problem process, including the discovery of the problem, the decision to tackle the issue, understanding the problem, researching the available options and taking actions to achieve your goals. Before problem-solving can occur, it is important to first understand the exact nature of the problem itself. If your understanding of the issue if faulty, your attempts to resolve it will also be incorrect or flawed.
There are a number of different mental process at work during problem-solving. These include:
- Perceptually recognizing a problem
- Representing the problem in memory
- Considering relevant information that applies to the current problem
- Identify different aspects of the problem
- Labeling and describing the problem
- Algorithms: An algorithm is a step-by-step procedure that will always produce a correct solution. A mathematical formula is a good example of a problem-solving algorithm. While an algorithm guarantees an accurate answer, it is not always the best approach to problem solving. This strategy is not practical for many situations because it can be so time-consuming. For example, if you were trying to figure out all of the possible number combinations to a lock using an algorithm, it would take a very long time!
- Heuristics: A heuristic is a mental rule-of-thumb strategy that may or may not work in certain situations. Unlike algorithms, heuristics do not always guarantee a correct solution. However, using this problem-solving strategy does allow people to simplify complex problems and reduce the total number of possible solutions to a more manageable set.
- Trial-and-Error: A trial-and-error approach to problem-solving involves trying a number of different solutions and ruling out those that do not work. This approach can be a good option if you have a very limited number of options available. If there are many different choices, you are better off narrowing down the possible options using another problem-solving technique before attempting trial-and-error.
- Insight: In some cases, the solution to a problem can appear as a sudden insight. According to researchers, insight can occur because you realize that the problem is actually similar to something that you have dealt with in the past, but in most cases the underlying mental processes that lead to insight happen outside of awareness.
Problems and Obstacles in Problem-Solving
Of course, problem-solving is not a flawless process. There are a number of different obstacles that can interfere with our ability to solve a problem quickly and efficiently. Researchers have described a number of these mental obstacles, which include functional fixedness, irrelevant information and assumptions.
- Functional Fixedness: This term refers to the tendency to view problems only in their customary manner. Functional fixedness prevents people from fully seeing all of the different options that might be available to find a solution.
- Irrelevant or Misleading Information: When you are trying to solve a problem, it is important to distinguish between information that is relevant to the issue and irrelevant data that can lead to faulty solutions. When a problem is very complex, the easier it becomes to focus on misleading or irrelevant information.
- Assumptions: When dealing with a problem, people often make assumptions about the constraints and obstacles that prevent certain solutions.
- Mental Set: Another common problem-solving obstacle is known as a mental set, which is the tendency people have to only use solutions that have worked in the past rather than looking for alternative ideas. A mental set can often work as a heuristic, making it a useful problem-solving tool. However, mental sets can also lead to inflexibility, making it more difficult to find effective solutions.
Mayer, R. E. (1992). Thinking, problem solving, cognition. (2nd Ed.). New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.
Schooler, J. W., Ohlsson, S., & Brooks, K. (1993). Thoughts beyond words: When language overshadows insight. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 122, 166-183.