Notebook, 1993-


Problem Solving

[From Coon, Introduction to Psychology, Exploration and Application.] - Problem Solving may be the result of thinking that is mechanical, insightful, or based on understanding. We begin with an awareness that an answer probably exists and that by proper thinking, a solution can be found. A number of different approaches to problem solving can be identified.

l. Mechanical Solutions. They may be achieved by trial and error or by rote.

2. Solutions by Understanding. Many problems cannot be solved mechanically or by habitual modes of thought. In this case, a higher level of thinking based on understanding is necessary. Karl Duncker, German psychologists, found that there were two phases to successful problem solving.

3. Heuristics. Problem-solving strategy. Solving problems often requires a strategy. If the number of alternatives is small, a random search strategy may work. This is another example of trial-and-error problem solving in which all possibilities are tried. Typically, heuristics reduce the number of alternatives that a thinker must consider. In more complex problem solving, heuristics do not guarantee success, but they certainly help. Here are some strategies that often work:

- Try to identify how the current state of affairs differs from the desired goal. Then find steps that will reduce the difference.

- Try working backward from the desired goal to the starting point or current state.

- If you can't reach the goal directly, try to identify an intermediate goal or subproblem that at least gets you closer.

- Represent the problem in other ways, with graphs, diagrams, or analogies, for instnce.

- Generate a possible solution and test it. Doing so may eliminate many alternatives, or it may clarify what is needed for a solution.

4. Ideal Problem Solving. Most valuable heuristic of all is having a general thinking strategy. Psychologist John Bransford and his colleagues list five steps that they believe lead to effective problem solving:

5. Insightful Solutions. With humans we say that insight has occurred when an answer suddenly appears after a period of unsuccessful thought. An insight is usually so rapid and clear that we often wonder how such an "obvious" solution could have been missed. If the insight is not rapid, may be heading for a mistake. Psychologists Robert Sternberg and Janet Davidson (1982) have studied people as they solve problems that require insight or "leaps of logic." According to them, insight involves three abilities.

[Coon, Dennis. Introduction to Psychology, Exploration and Application. St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1989. Chapter: Learning & Cognition]



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