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7 Module 7: Thinking, Reasoning, and Problem-Solving

This module is about how a solid working knowledge of psychological principles can help you to think more effectively, so you can succeed in school and life. You might be inclined to believe that—because you have been thinking for as long as you can remember, because you are able to figure out the solution to many problems, because you feel capable of using logic to argue a point, because you can evaluate whether the things you read and hear make sense—you do not need any special training in thinking. But this, of course, is one of the key barriers to helping people think better. If you do not believe that there is anything wrong, why try to fix it?

The human brain is indeed a remarkable thinking machine, capable of amazing, complex, creative, logical thoughts. Why, then, are we telling you that you need to learn how to think? Mainly because one major lesson from cognitive psychology is that these capabilities of the human brain are relatively infrequently realized. Many psychologists believe that people are essentially “cognitive misers.” It is not that we are lazy, but that we have a tendency to expend the least amount of mental effort necessary. Although you may not realize it, it actually takes a great deal of energy to think. Careful, deliberative reasoning and critical thinking are very difficult. Because we seem to be successful without going to the trouble of using these skills well, it feels unnecessary to develop them. As you shall see, however, there are many pitfalls in the cognitive processes described in this module. When people do not devote extra effort to learning and improving reasoning, problem solving, and critical thinking skills, they make many errors.

As is true for memory, if you develop the cognitive skills presented in this module, you will be more successful in school. It is important that you realize, however, that these skills will help you far beyond school, even more so than a good memory will. Although it is somewhat useful to have a good memory, ten years from now no potential employer will care how many questions you got right on multiple choice exams during college. All of them will, however, recognize whether you are a logical, analytical, critical thinker. With these thinking skills, you will be an effective, persuasive communicator and an excellent problem solver.

The module begins by describing different kinds of thought and knowledge, especially conceptual knowledge and critical thinking. An understanding of these differences will be valuable as you progress through school and encounter different assignments that require you to tap into different kinds of knowledge. The second section covers deductive and inductive reasoning, which are processes we use to construct and evaluate strong arguments. They are essential skills to have whenever you are trying to persuade someone (including yourself) of some point, or to respond to someone’s efforts to persuade you. The module ends with a section about problem solving. A solid understanding of the key processes involved in problem solving will help you to handle many daily challenges.

7.1. Different kinds of thought

7.2. Reasoning and Judgment

7.3. Problem Solving

READING WITH PURPOSE

Remember and understand.

By reading and studying Module 7, you should be able to remember and describe:

  • Concepts and inferences (7.1)
  • Procedural knowledge (7.1)
  • Metacognition (7.1)
  • Characteristics of critical thinking:  skepticism; identify biases, distortions, omissions, and assumptions; reasoning and problem solving skills  (7.1)
  • Reasoning:  deductive reasoning, deductively valid argument, inductive reasoning, inductively strong argument, availability heuristic, representativeness heuristic  (7.2)
  • Fixation:  functional fixedness, mental set  (7.3)
  • Algorithms, heuristics, and the role of confirmation bias (7.3)
  • Effective problem solving sequence (7.3)

By reading and thinking about how the concepts in Module 6 apply to real life, you should be able to:

  • Identify which type of knowledge a piece of information is (7.1)
  • Recognize examples of deductive and inductive reasoning (7.2)
  • Recognize judgments that have probably been influenced by the availability heuristic (7.2)
  • Recognize examples of problem solving heuristics and algorithms (7.3)

Analyze, Evaluate, and Create

By reading and thinking about Module 6, participating in classroom activities, and completing out-of-class assignments, you should be able to:

  • Use the principles of critical thinking to evaluate information (7.1)
  • Explain whether examples of reasoning arguments are deductively valid or inductively strong (7.2)
  • Outline how you could try to solve a problem from your life using the effective problem solving sequence (7.3)

7.1. Different kinds of thought and knowledge

  • Take a few minutes to write down everything that you know about dogs.
  • Do you believe that:
  • Psychic ability exists?
  • Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness?
  • Magnet therapy is effective for relieving pain?
  • Aerobic exercise is an effective treatment for depression?
  • UFO’s from outer space have visited earth?

On what do you base your belief or disbelief for the questions above?

Of course, we all know what is meant by the words  think  and  knowledge . You probably also realize that they are not unitary concepts; there are different kinds of thought and knowledge. In this section, let us look at some of these differences. If you are familiar with these different kinds of thought and pay attention to them in your classes, it will help you to focus on the right goals, learn more effectively, and succeed in school. Different assignments and requirements in school call on you to use different kinds of knowledge or thought, so it will be very helpful for you to learn to recognize them (Anderson, et al. 2001).

Factual and conceptual knowledge

Module 5 introduced the idea of declarative memory, which is composed of facts and episodes. If you have ever played a trivia game or watched Jeopardy on TV, you realize that the human brain is able to hold an extraordinary number of facts. Likewise, you realize that each of us has an enormous store of episodes, essentially facts about events that happened in our own lives. It may be difficult to keep that in mind when we are struggling to retrieve one of those facts while taking an exam, however. Part of the problem is that, in contradiction to the advice from Module 5, many students continue to try to memorize course material as a series of unrelated facts (picture a history student simply trying to memorize history as a set of unrelated dates without any coherent story tying them together). Facts in the real world are not random and unorganized, however. It is the way that they are organized that constitutes a second key kind of knowledge, conceptual.

Concepts are nothing more than our mental representations of categories of things in the world. For example, think about dogs. When you do this, you might remember specific facts about dogs, such as they have fur and they bark. You may also recall dogs that you have encountered and picture them in your mind. All of this information (and more) makes up your concept of dog. You can have concepts of simple categories (e.g., triangle), complex categories (e.g., small dogs that sleep all day, eat out of the garbage, and bark at leaves), kinds of people (e.g., psychology professors), events (e.g., birthday parties), and abstract ideas (e.g., justice). Gregory Murphy (2002) refers to concepts as the “glue that holds our mental life together” (p. 1). Very simply, summarizing the world by using concepts is one of the most important cognitive tasks that we do. Our conceptual knowledge  is  our knowledge about the world. Individual concepts are related to each other to form a rich interconnected network of knowledge. For example, think about how the following concepts might be related to each other: dog, pet, play, Frisbee, chew toy, shoe. Or, of more obvious use to you now, how these concepts are related: working memory, long-term memory, declarative memory, procedural memory, and rehearsal? Because our minds have a natural tendency to organize information conceptually, when students try to remember course material as isolated facts, they are working against their strengths.

One last important point about concepts is that they allow you to instantly know a great deal of information about something. For example, if someone hands you a small red object and says, “here is an apple,” they do not have to tell you, “it is something you can eat.” You already know that you can eat it because it is true by virtue of the fact that the object is an apple; this is called drawing an  inference , assuming that something is true on the basis of your previous knowledge (for example, of category membership or of how the world works) or logical reasoning.

Procedural knowledge

Physical skills, such as tying your shoes, doing a cartwheel, and driving a car (or doing all three at the same time, but don’t try this at home) are certainly a kind of knowledge. They are procedural knowledge, the same idea as procedural memory that you saw in Module 5. Mental skills, such as reading, debating, and planning a psychology experiment, are procedural knowledge, as well. In short, procedural knowledge is the knowledge how to do something (Cohen & Eichenbaum, 1993).

Metacognitive knowledge

Floyd used to think that he had a great memory. Now, he has a better memory. Why? Because he finally realized that his memory was not as great as he once thought it was. Because Floyd eventually learned that he often forgets where he put things, he finally developed the habit of putting things in the same place. (Unfortunately, he did not learn this lesson before losing at least 5 watches and a wedding ring.) Because he finally realized that he often forgets to do things, he finally started using the To Do list app on his phone. And so on. Floyd’s insights about the real limitations of his memory have allowed him to remember things that he used to forget.

All of us have knowledge about the way our own minds work. You may know that you have a good memory for people’s names and a poor memory for math formulas. Someone else might realize that they have difficulty remembering to do things, like stopping at the store on the way home. Others still know that they tend to overlook details. This knowledge about our own thinking is actually quite important; it is called metacognitive knowledge, or  metacognition . Like other kinds of thinking skills, it is subject to error. For example, in unpublished research, one of the authors surveyed about 120 General Psychology students on the first day of the term. Among other questions, the students were asked them to predict their grade in the class and report their current Grade Point Average. Two-thirds of the students predicted that their grade in the course would be higher than their GPA. (The reality is that at our college, students tend to earn lower grades in psychology than their overall GPA.) Another example: Students routinely report that they thought they had done well on an exam, only to discover, to their dismay, that they were wrong (more on that important problem in a moment). Both errors reveal a breakdown in metacognition.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

In general, most college students probably do not study enough. For example, using data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, Fosnacht, McCormack, and Lerma (2018) reported that first-year students at 4-year colleges in the U.S. averaged less than 14 hours per week preparing for classes. The typical suggestion is that you should spend two hours outside of class for every hour in class, or 24 – 30 hours per week for a full-time student. Clearly, students in general are nowhere near that recommended mark. Many observers, including some faculty, believe that this shortfall is a result of students being too busy or lazy. Now, it may be true that many students are too busy, with work and family obligations, for example. Others, are not particularly motivated in school, and therefore might correctly be labeled lazy. A third possible explanation, however, is that some students might not think they need to spend this much time. And this is a matter of metacognition. Consider the scenario that we mentioned above, students thinking they had done well on an exam only to discover that they did not. Justin Kruger and David Dunning examined scenarios very much like this in 1999. Kruger and Dunning gave research participants tests measuring humor, logic, and grammar. Then, they asked the participants to assess their own abilities and test performance in these areas. They found that participants in general tended to overestimate their abilities, already a problem with metacognition. Importantly, the participants who scored the lowest overestimated their abilities the most. Specifically, students who scored in the bottom quarter (averaging in the 12th percentile) thought they had scored in the 62nd percentile. This has become known as the  Dunning-Kruger effect . Many individual faculty members have replicated these results with their own student on their course exams, including the authors of this book. Think about it. Some students who just took an exam and performed poorly believe that they did well before seeing their score. It seems very likely that these are the very same students who stopped studying the night before because they thought they were “done.” Quite simply, it is not just that they did not know the material. They did not know that they did not know the material. That is poor metacognition.

In order to develop good metacognitive skills, you should continually monitor your thinking and seek frequent feedback on the accuracy of your thinking (Medina, Castleberry, & Persky 2017). For example, in classes get in the habit of predicting your exam grades. As soon as possible after taking an exam, try to find out which questions you missed and try to figure out why. If you do this soon enough, you may be able to recall the way it felt when you originally answered the question. Did you feel confident that you had answered the question correctly? Then you have just discovered an opportunity to improve your metacognition. Be on the lookout for that feeling and respond with caution.

concept :  a mental representation of a category of things in the world

Dunning-Kruger effect : individuals who are less competent tend to overestimate their abilities more than individuals who are more competent do

inference : an assumption about the truth of something that is not stated. Inferences come from our prior knowledge and experience, and from logical reasoning

metacognition :  knowledge about one’s own cognitive processes; thinking about your thinking

Critical thinking

One particular kind of knowledge or thinking skill that is related to metacognition is  critical thinking (Chew, 2020). You may have noticed that critical thinking is an objective in many college courses, and thus it could be a legitimate topic to cover in nearly any college course. It is particularly appropriate in psychology, however. As the science of (behavior and) mental processes, psychology is obviously well suited to be the discipline through which you should be introduced to this important way of thinking.

More importantly, there is a particular need to use critical thinking in psychology. We are all, in a way, experts in human behavior and mental processes, having engaged in them literally since birth. Thus, perhaps more than in any other class, students typically approach psychology with very clear ideas and opinions about its subject matter. That is, students already “know” a lot about psychology. The problem is, “it ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so” (Ward, quoted in Gilovich 1991). Indeed, many of students’ preconceptions about psychology are just plain wrong. Randolph Smith (2002) wrote a book about critical thinking in psychology called  Challenging Your Preconceptions,  highlighting this fact. On the other hand, many of students’ preconceptions about psychology are just plain right! But wait, how do you know which of your preconceptions are right and which are wrong? And when you come across a research finding or theory in this class that contradicts your preconceptions, what will you do? Will you stick to your original idea, discounting the information from the class? Will you immediately change your mind? Critical thinking can help us sort through this confusing mess.

But what is critical thinking? The goal of critical thinking is simple to state (but extraordinarily difficult to achieve): it is to be right, to draw the correct conclusions, to believe in things that are true and to disbelieve things that are false. We will provide two definitions of critical thinking (or, if you like, one large definition with two distinct parts). First, a more conceptual one: Critical thinking is thinking like a scientist in your everyday life (Schmaltz, Jansen, & Wenckowski, 2017).  Our second definition is more operational; it is simply a list of skills that are essential to be a critical thinker. Critical thinking entails solid reasoning and problem solving skills; skepticism; and an ability to identify biases, distortions, omissions, and assumptions. Excellent deductive and inductive reasoning, and problem solving skills contribute to critical thinking. So, you can consider the subject matter of sections 7.2 and 7.3 to be part of critical thinking. Because we will be devoting considerable time to these concepts in the rest of the module, let us begin with a discussion about the other aspects of critical thinking.

Let’s address that first part of the definition. Scientists form hypotheses, or predictions about some possible future observations. Then, they collect data, or information (think of this as making those future observations). They do their best to make unbiased observations using reliable techniques that have been verified by others. Then, and only then, they draw a conclusion about what those observations mean. Oh, and do not forget the most important part. “Conclusion” is probably not the most appropriate word because this conclusion is only tentative. A scientist is always prepared that someone else might come along and produce new observations that would require a new conclusion be drawn. Wow! If you like to be right, you could do a lot worse than using a process like this.

A Critical Thinker’s Toolkit 

Now for the second part of the definition. Good critical thinkers (and scientists) rely on a variety of tools to evaluate information. Perhaps the most recognizable tool for critical thinking is  skepticism (and this term provides the clearest link to the thinking like a scientist definition, as you are about to see). Some people intend it as an insult when they call someone a skeptic. But if someone calls you a skeptic, if they are using the term correctly, you should consider it a great compliment. Simply put, skepticism is a way of thinking in which you refrain from drawing a conclusion or changing your mind until good evidence has been provided. People from Missouri should recognize this principle, as Missouri is known as the Show-Me State. As a skeptic, you are not inclined to believe something just because someone said so, because someone else believes it, or because it sounds reasonable. You must be persuaded by high quality evidence.

Of course, if that evidence is produced, you have a responsibility as a skeptic to change your belief. Failure to change a belief in the face of good evidence is not skepticism; skepticism has open mindedness at its core. M. Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley (2018) use the term weak sense critical thinking to describe critical thinking behaviors that are used only to strengthen a prior belief. Strong sense critical thinking, on the other hand, has as its goal reaching the best conclusion. Sometimes that means strengthening your prior belief, but sometimes it means changing your belief to accommodate the better evidence.

Many times, a failure to think critically or weak sense critical thinking is related to a  bias , an inclination, tendency, leaning, or prejudice. Everybody has biases, but many people are unaware of them. Awareness of your own biases gives you the opportunity to control or counteract them. Unfortunately, however, many people are happy to let their biases creep into their attempts to persuade others; indeed, it is a key part of their persuasive strategy. To see how these biases influence messages, just look at the different descriptions and explanations of the same events given by people of different ages or income brackets, or conservative versus liberal commentators, or by commentators from different parts of the world. Of course, to be successful, these people who are consciously using their biases must disguise them. Even undisguised biases can be difficult to identify, so disguised ones can be nearly impossible.

Here are some common sources of biases:

  • Personal values and beliefs.  Some people believe that human beings are basically driven to seek power and that they are typically in competition with one another over scarce resources. These beliefs are similar to the world-view that political scientists call “realism.” Other people believe that human beings prefer to cooperate and that, given the chance, they will do so. These beliefs are similar to the world-view known as “idealism.” For many people, these deeply held beliefs can influence, or bias, their interpretations of such wide ranging situations as the behavior of nations and their leaders or the behavior of the driver in the car ahead of you. For example, if your worldview is that people are typically in competition and someone cuts you off on the highway, you may assume that the driver did it purposely to get ahead of you. Other types of beliefs about the way the world is or the way the world should be, for example, political beliefs, can similarly become a significant source of bias.
  • Racism, sexism, ageism and other forms of prejudice and bigotry.  These are, sadly, a common source of bias in many people. They are essentially a special kind of “belief about the way the world is.” These beliefs—for example, that women do not make effective leaders—lead people to ignore contradictory evidence (examples of effective women leaders, or research that disputes the belief) and to interpret ambiguous evidence in a way consistent with the belief.
  • Self-interest.  When particular people benefit from things turning out a certain way, they can sometimes be very susceptible to letting that interest bias them. For example, a company that will earn a profit if they sell their product may have a bias in the way that they give information about their product. A union that will benefit if its members get a generous contract might have a bias in the way it presents information about salaries at competing organizations. (Note that our inclusion of examples describing both companies and unions is an explicit attempt to control for our own personal biases). Home buyers are often dismayed to discover that they purchased their dream house from someone whose self-interest led them to lie about flooding problems in the basement or back yard. This principle, the biasing power of self-interest, is likely what led to the famous phrase  Caveat Emptor  (let the buyer beware) .  

Knowing that these types of biases exist will help you evaluate evidence more critically. Do not forget, though, that people are not always keen to let you discover the sources of biases in their arguments. For example, companies or political organizations can sometimes disguise their support of a research study by contracting with a university professor, who comes complete with a seemingly unbiased institutional affiliation, to conduct the study.

People’s biases, conscious or unconscious, can lead them to make omissions, distortions, and assumptions that undermine our ability to correctly evaluate evidence. It is essential that you look for these elements. Always ask, what is missing, what is not as it appears, and what is being assumed here? For example, consider this (fictional) chart from an ad reporting customer satisfaction at 4 local health clubs.

unit 3 lesson 7 thinking and problem solving

Clearly, from the results of the chart, one would be tempted to give Club C a try, as customer satisfaction is much higher than for the other 3 clubs.

There are so many distortions and omissions in this chart, however, that it is actually quite meaningless. First, how was satisfaction measured? Do the bars represent responses to a survey? If so, how were the questions asked? Most importantly, where is the missing scale for the chart? Although the differences look quite large, are they really?

Well, here is the same chart, with a different scale, this time labeled:

unit 3 lesson 7 thinking and problem solving

Club C is not so impressive any more, is it? In fact, all of the health clubs have customer satisfaction ratings (whatever that means) between 85% and 88%. In the first chart, the entire scale of the graph included only the percentages between 83 and 89. This “judicious” choice of scale—some would call it a distortion—and omission of that scale from the chart make the tiny differences among the clubs seem important, however.

Also, in order to be a critical thinker, you need to learn to pay attention to the assumptions that underlie a message. Let us briefly illustrate the role of assumptions by touching on some people’s beliefs about the criminal justice system in the US. Some believe that a major problem with our judicial system is that many criminals go free because of legal technicalities. Others believe that a major problem is that many innocent people are convicted of crimes. The simple fact is, both types of errors occur. A person’s conclusion about which flaw in our judicial system is the greater tragedy is based on an assumption about which of these is the more serious error (letting the guilty go free or convicting the innocent). This type of assumption is called a value assumption (Browne and Keeley, 2018). It reflects the differences in values that people develop, differences that may lead us to disregard valid evidence that does not fit in with our particular values.

Oh, by the way, some students probably noticed this, but the seven tips for evaluating information that we shared in Module 1 are related to this. Actually, they are part of this section. The tips are, to a very large degree, set of ideas you can use to help you identify biases, distortions, omissions, and assumptions. If you do not remember this section, we strongly recommend you take a few minutes to review it.

skepticism :  a way of thinking in which you refrain from drawing a conclusion or changing your mind until good evidence has been provided

bias : an inclination, tendency, leaning, or prejudice

  • Which of your beliefs (or disbeliefs) from the Activate exercise for this section were derived from a process of critical thinking? If some of your beliefs were not based on critical thinking, are you willing to reassess these beliefs? If the answer is no, why do you think that is? If the answer is yes, what concrete steps will you take?

7.2 Reasoning and Judgment

  • What percentage of kidnappings are committed by strangers?
  • Which area of the house is riskiest: kitchen, bathroom, or stairs?
  • What is the most common cancer in the US?
  • What percentage of workplace homicides are committed by co-workers?

An essential set of procedural thinking skills is  reasoning , the ability to generate and evaluate solid conclusions from a set of statements or evidence. You should note that these conclusions (when they are generated instead of being evaluated) are one key type of inference that we described in Section 7.1. There are two main types of reasoning, deductive and inductive.

Deductive reasoning

Suppose your teacher tells you that if you get an A on the final exam in a course, you will get an A for the whole course. Then, you get an A on the final exam. What will your final course grade be? Most people can see instantly that you can conclude with certainty that you will get an A for the course. This is a type of reasoning called  deductive reasoning , which is defined as reasoning in which a conclusion is guaranteed to be true as long as the statements leading to it are true. The three statements can be listed as an  argument , with two beginning statements and a conclusion:

Statement 1: If you get an A on the final exam, you will get an A for the course

Statement 2: You get an A on the final exam

Conclusion: You will get an A for the course

This particular arrangement, in which true beginning statements lead to a guaranteed true conclusion, is known as a  deductively valid argument . Although deductive reasoning is often the subject of abstract, brain-teasing, puzzle-like word problems, it is actually an extremely important type of everyday reasoning. It is just hard to recognize sometimes. For example, imagine that you are looking for your car keys and you realize that they are either in the kitchen drawer or in your book bag. After looking in the kitchen drawer, you instantly know that they must be in your book bag. That conclusion results from a simple deductive reasoning argument. In addition, solid deductive reasoning skills are necessary for you to succeed in the sciences, philosophy, math, computer programming, and any endeavor involving the use of logic to persuade others to your point of view or to evaluate others’ arguments.

Cognitive psychologists, and before them philosophers, have been quite interested in deductive reasoning, not so much for its practical applications, but for the insights it can offer them about the ways that human beings think. One of the early ideas to emerge from the examination of deductive reasoning is that people learn (or develop) mental versions of rules that allow them to solve these types of reasoning problems (Braine, 1978; Braine, Reiser, & Rumain, 1984). The best way to see this point of view is to realize that there are different possible rules, and some of them are very simple. For example, consider this rule of logic:

therefore q

Logical rules are often presented abstractly, as letters, in order to imply that they can be used in very many specific situations. Here is a concrete version of the of the same rule:

I’ll either have pizza or a hamburger for dinner tonight (p or q)

I won’t have pizza (not p)

Therefore, I’ll have a hamburger (therefore q)

This kind of reasoning seems so natural, so easy, that it is quite plausible that we would use a version of this rule in our daily lives. At least, it seems more plausible than some of the alternative possibilities—for example, that we need to have experience with the specific situation (pizza or hamburger, in this case) in order to solve this type of problem easily. So perhaps there is a form of natural logic (Rips, 1990) that contains very simple versions of logical rules. When we are faced with a reasoning problem that maps onto one of these rules, we use the rule.

But be very careful; things are not always as easy as they seem. Even these simple rules are not so simple. For example, consider the following rule. Many people fail to realize that this rule is just as valid as the pizza or hamburger rule above.

if p, then q

therefore, not p

Concrete version:

If I eat dinner, then I will have dessert

I did not have dessert

Therefore, I did not eat dinner

The simple fact is, it can be very difficult for people to apply rules of deductive logic correctly; as a result, they make many errors when trying to do so. Is this a deductively valid argument or not?

Students who like school study a lot

Students who study a lot get good grades

Jane does not like school

Therefore, Jane does not get good grades

Many people are surprised to discover that this is not a logically valid argument; the conclusion is not guaranteed to be true from the beginning statements. Although the first statement says that students who like school study a lot, it does NOT say that students who do not like school do not study a lot. In other words, it may very well be possible to study a lot without liking school. Even people who sometimes get problems like this right might not be using the rules of deductive reasoning. Instead, they might just be making judgments for examples they know, in this case, remembering instances of people who get good grades despite not liking school.

Making deductive reasoning even more difficult is the fact that there are two important properties that an argument may have. One, it can be valid or invalid (meaning that the conclusion does or does not follow logically from the statements leading up to it). Two, an argument (or more correctly, its conclusion) can be true or false. Here is an example of an argument that is logically valid, but has a false conclusion (at least we think it is false).

Either you are eleven feet tall or the Grand Canyon was created by a spaceship crashing into the earth.

You are not eleven feet tall

Therefore the Grand Canyon was created by a spaceship crashing into the earth

This argument has the exact same form as the pizza or hamburger argument above, making it is deductively valid. The conclusion is so false, however, that it is absurd (of course, the reason the conclusion is false is that the first statement is false). When people are judging arguments, they tend to not observe the difference between deductive validity and the empirical truth of statements or conclusions. If the elements of an argument happen to be true, people are likely to judge the argument logically valid; if the elements are false, they will very likely judge it invalid (Markovits & Bouffard-Bouchard, 1992; Moshman & Franks, 1986). Thus, it seems a stretch to say that people are using these logical rules to judge the validity of arguments. Many psychologists believe that most people actually have very limited deductive reasoning skills (Johnson-Laird, 1999). They argue that when faced with a problem for which deductive logic is required, people resort to some simpler technique, such as matching terms that appear in the statements and the conclusion (Evans, 1982). This might not seem like a problem, but what if reasoners believe that the elements are true and they happen to be wrong; they will would believe that they are using a form of reasoning that guarantees they are correct and yet be wrong.

deductive reasoning :  a type of reasoning in which the conclusion is guaranteed to be true any time the statements leading up to it are true

argument :  a set of statements in which the beginning statements lead to a conclusion

deductively valid argument :  an argument for which true beginning statements guarantee that the conclusion is true

Inductive reasoning and judgment

Every day, you make many judgments about the likelihood of one thing or another. Whether you realize it or not, you are practicing  inductive reasoning   on a daily basis. In inductive reasoning arguments, a conclusion is likely whenever the statements preceding it are true. The first thing to notice about inductive reasoning is that, by definition, you can never be sure about your conclusion; you can only estimate how likely the conclusion is. Inductive reasoning may lead you to focus on Memory Encoding and Recoding when you study for the exam, but it is possible the instructor will ask more questions about Memory Retrieval instead. Unlike deductive reasoning, the conclusions you reach through inductive reasoning are only probable, not certain. That is why scientists consider inductive reasoning weaker than deductive reasoning. But imagine how hard it would be for us to function if we could not act unless we were certain about the outcome.

Inductive reasoning can be represented as logical arguments consisting of statements and a conclusion, just as deductive reasoning can be. In an inductive argument, you are given some statements and a conclusion (or you are given some statements and must draw a conclusion). An argument is  inductively strong   if the conclusion would be very probable whenever the statements are true. So, for example, here is an inductively strong argument:

  • Statement #1: The forecaster on Channel 2 said it is going to rain today.
  • Statement #2: The forecaster on Channel 5 said it is going to rain today.
  • Statement #3: It is very cloudy and humid.
  • Statement #4: You just heard thunder.
  • Conclusion (or judgment): It is going to rain today.

Think of the statements as evidence, on the basis of which you will draw a conclusion. So, based on the evidence presented in the four statements, it is very likely that it will rain today. Will it definitely rain today? Certainly not. We can all think of times that the weather forecaster was wrong.

A true story: Some years ago psychology student was watching a baseball playoff game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers. A graphic on the screen had just informed the audience that the Cardinal at bat, (Hall of Fame shortstop) Ozzie Smith, a switch hitter batting left-handed for this plate appearance, had never, in nearly 3000 career at-bats, hit a home run left-handed. The student, who had just learned about inductive reasoning in his psychology class, turned to his companion (a Cardinals fan) and smugly said, “It is an inductively strong argument that Ozzie Smith will not hit a home run.” He turned back to face the television just in time to watch the ball sail over the right field fence for a home run. Although the student felt foolish at the time, he was not wrong. It was an inductively strong argument; 3000 at-bats is an awful lot of evidence suggesting that the Wizard of Ozz (as he was known) would not be hitting one out of the park (think of each at-bat without a home run as a statement in an inductive argument). Sadly (for the die-hard Cubs fan and Cardinals-hating student), despite the strength of the argument, the conclusion was wrong.

Given the possibility that we might draw an incorrect conclusion even with an inductively strong argument, we really want to be sure that we do, in fact, make inductively strong arguments. If we judge something probable, it had better be probable. If we judge something nearly impossible, it had better not happen. Think of inductive reasoning, then, as making reasonably accurate judgments of the probability of some conclusion given a set of evidence.

We base many decisions in our lives on inductive reasoning. For example:

Statement #1: Psychology is not my best subject

Statement #2: My psychology instructor has a reputation for giving difficult exams

Statement #3: My first psychology exam was much harder than I expected

Judgment: The next exam will probably be very difficult.

Decision: I will study tonight instead of watching Netflix.

Some other examples of judgments that people commonly make in a school context include judgments of the likelihood that:

  • A particular class will be interesting/useful/difficult
  • You will be able to finish writing a paper by next week if you go out tonight
  • Your laptop’s battery will last through the next trip to the library
  • You will not miss anything important if you skip class tomorrow
  • Your instructor will not notice if you skip class tomorrow
  • You will be able to find a book that you will need for a paper
  • There will be an essay question about Memory Encoding on the next exam

Tversky and Kahneman (1983) recognized that there are two general ways that we might make these judgments; they termed them extensional (i.e., following the laws of probability) and intuitive (i.e., using shortcuts or heuristics, see below). We will use a similar distinction between Type 1 and Type 2 thinking, as described by Keith Stanovich and his colleagues (Evans and Stanovich, 2013; Stanovich and West, 2000). Type 1 thinking is fast, automatic, effortful, and emotional. In fact, it is hardly fair to call it reasoning at all, as judgments just seem to pop into one’s head. Type 2 thinking , on the other hand, is slow, effortful, and logical. So obviously, it is more likely to lead to a correct judgment, or an optimal decision. The problem is, we tend to over-rely on Type 1. Now, we are not saying that Type 2 is the right way to go for every decision or judgment we make. It seems a bit much, for example, to engage in a step-by-step logical reasoning procedure to decide whether we will have chicken or fish for dinner tonight.

Many bad decisions in some very important contexts, however, can be traced back to poor judgments of the likelihood of certain risks or outcomes that result from the use of Type 1 when a more logical reasoning process would have been more appropriate. For example:

Statement #1: It is late at night.

Statement #2: Albert has been drinking beer for the past five hours at a party.

Statement #3: Albert is not exactly sure where he is or how far away home is.

Judgment: Albert will have no difficulty walking home.

Decision: He walks home alone.

As you can see in this example, the three statements backing up the judgment do not really support it. In other words, this argument is not inductively strong because it is based on judgments that ignore the laws of probability. What are the chances that someone facing these conditions will be able to walk home alone easily? And one need not be drunk to make poor decisions based on judgments that just pop into our heads.

The truth is that many of our probability judgments do not come very close to what the laws of probability say they should be. Think about it. In order for us to reason in accordance with these laws, we would need to know the laws of probability, which would allow us to calculate the relationship between particular pieces of evidence and the probability of some outcome (i.e., how much likelihood should change given a piece of evidence), and we would have to do these heavy math calculations in our heads. After all, that is what Type 2 requires. Needless to say, even if we were motivated, we often do not even know how to apply Type 2 reasoning in many cases.

So what do we do when we don’t have the knowledge, skills, or time required to make the correct mathematical judgment? Do we hold off and wait until we can get better evidence? Do we read up on probability and fire up our calculator app so we can compute the correct probability? Of course not. We rely on Type 1 thinking. We “wing it.” That is, we come up with a likelihood estimate using some means at our disposal. Psychologists use the term heuristic to describe the type of “winging it” we are talking about. A  heuristic   is a shortcut strategy that we use to make some judgment or solve some problem (see Section 7.3). Heuristics are easy and quick, think of them as the basic procedures that are characteristic of Type 1.  They can absolutely lead to reasonably good judgments and decisions in some situations (like choosing between chicken and fish for dinner). They are, however, far from foolproof. There are, in fact, quite a lot of situations in which heuristics can lead us to make incorrect judgments, and in many cases the decisions based on those judgments can have serious consequences.

Let us return to the activity that begins this section. You were asked to judge the likelihood (or frequency) of certain events and risks. You were free to come up with your own evidence (or statements) to make these judgments. This is where a heuristic crops up. As a judgment shortcut, we tend to generate specific examples of those very events to help us decide their likelihood or frequency. For example, if we are asked to judge how common, frequent, or likely a particular type of cancer is, many of our statements would be examples of specific cancer cases:

Statement #1: Andy Kaufman (comedian) had lung cancer.

Statement #2: Colin Powell (US Secretary of State) had prostate cancer.

Statement #3: Bob Marley (musician) had skin and brain cancer

Statement #4: Sandra Day O’Connor (Supreme Court Justice) had breast cancer.

Statement #5: Fred Rogers (children’s entertainer) had stomach cancer.

Statement #6: Robin Roberts (news anchor) had breast cancer.

Statement #7: Bette Davis (actress) had breast cancer.

Judgment: Breast cancer is the most common type.

Your own experience or memory may also tell you that breast cancer is the most common type. But it is not (although it is common). Actually, skin cancer is the most common type in the US. We make the same types of misjudgments all the time because we do not generate the examples or evidence according to their actual frequencies or probabilities. Instead, we have a tendency (or bias) to search for the examples in memory; if they are easy to retrieve, we assume that they are common. To rephrase this in the language of the heuristic, events seem more likely to the extent that they are available to memory. This bias has been termed the  availability heuristic   (Kahneman and Tversky, 1974).

The fact that we use the availability heuristic does not automatically mean that our judgment is wrong. The reason we use heuristics in the first place is that they work fairly well in many cases (and, of course that they are easy to use). So, the easiest examples to think of sometimes are the most common ones. Is it more likely that a member of the U.S. Senate is a man or a woman? Most people have a much easier time generating examples of male senators. And as it turns out, the U.S. Senate has many more men than women (74 to 26 in 2020). In this case, then, the availability heuristic would lead you to make the correct judgment; it is far more likely that a senator would be a man.

In many other cases, however, the availability heuristic will lead us astray. This is because events can be memorable for many reasons other than their frequency. Section 5.2, Encoding Meaning, suggested that one good way to encode the meaning of some information is to form a mental image of it. Thus, information that has been pictured mentally will be more available to memory. Indeed, an event that is vivid and easily pictured will trick many people into supposing that type of event is more common than it actually is. Repetition of information will also make it more memorable. So, if the same event is described to you in a magazine, on the evening news, on a podcast that you listen to, and in your Facebook feed; it will be very available to memory. Again, the availability heuristic will cause you to misperceive the frequency of these types of events.

Most interestingly, information that is unusual is more memorable. Suppose we give you the following list of words to remember: box, flower, letter, platypus, oven, boat, newspaper, purse, drum, car. Very likely, the easiest word to remember would be platypus, the unusual one. The same thing occurs with memories of events. An event may be available to memory because it is unusual, yet the availability heuristic leads us to judge that the event is common. Did you catch that? In these cases, the availability heuristic makes us think the exact opposite of the true frequency. We end up thinking something is common because it is unusual (and therefore memorable). Yikes.

The misapplication of the availability heuristic sometimes has unfortunate results. For example, if you went to K-12 school in the US over the past 10 years, it is extremely likely that you have participated in lockdown and active shooter drills. Of course, everyone is trying to prevent the tragedy of another school shooting. And believe us, we are not trying to minimize how terrible the tragedy is. But the truth of the matter is, school shootings are extremely rare. Because the federal government does not keep a database of school shootings, the Washington Post has maintained their own running tally. Between 1999 and January 2020 (the date of the most recent school shooting with a death in the US at of the time this paragraph was written), the Post reported a total of 254 people died in school shootings in the US. Not 254 per year, 254 total. That is an average of 12 per year. Of course, that is 254 people who should not have died (particularly because many were children), but in a country with approximately 60,000,000 students and teachers, this is a very small risk.

But many students and teachers are terrified that they will be victims of school shootings because of the availability heuristic. It is so easy to think of examples (they are very available to memory) that people believe the event is very common. It is not. And there is a downside to this. We happen to believe that there is an enormous gun violence problem in the United States. According the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 39,773 firearm deaths in the US in 2017. Fifteen of those deaths were in school shootings, according to the Post. 60% of those deaths were suicides. When people pay attention to the school shooting risk (low), they often fail to notice the much larger risk.

And examples like this are by no means unique. The authors of this book have been teaching psychology since the 1990’s. We have been able to make the exact same arguments about the misapplication of the availability heuristics and keep them current by simply swapping out for the “fear of the day.” In the 1990’s it was children being kidnapped by strangers (it was known as “stranger danger”) despite the facts that kidnappings accounted for only 2% of the violent crimes committed against children, and only 24% of kidnappings are committed by strangers (US Department of Justice, 2007). This fear overlapped with the fear of terrorism that gripped the country after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and US Pentagon and still plagues the population of the US somewhat in 2020. After a well-publicized, sensational act of violence, people are extremely likely to increase their estimates of the chances that they, too, will be victims of terror. Think about the reality, however. In October of 2001, a terrorist mailed anthrax spores to members of the US government and a number of media companies. A total of five people died as a result of this attack. The nation was nearly paralyzed by the fear of dying from the attack; in reality the probability of an individual person dying was 0.00000002.

The availability heuristic can lead you to make incorrect judgments in a school setting as well. For example, suppose you are trying to decide if you should take a class from a particular math professor. You might try to make a judgment of how good a teacher she is by recalling instances of friends and acquaintances making comments about her teaching skill. You may have some examples that suggest that she is a poor teacher very available to memory, so on the basis of the availability heuristic you judge her a poor teacher and decide to take the class from someone else. What if, however, the instances you recalled were all from the same person, and this person happens to be a very colorful storyteller? The subsequent ease of remembering the instances might not indicate that the professor is a poor teacher after all.

Although the availability heuristic is obviously important, it is not the only judgment heuristic we use. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman examined the role of heuristics in inductive reasoning in a long series of studies. Kahneman received a Nobel Prize in Economics for this research in 2002, and Tversky would have certainly received one as well if he had not died of melanoma at age 59 in 1996 (Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously). Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated repeatedly that people do not reason in ways that are consistent with the laws of probability. They identified several heuristic strategies that people use instead to make judgments about likelihood. The importance of this work for economics (and the reason that Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize) is that earlier economic theories had assumed that people do make judgments rationally, that is, in agreement with the laws of probability.

Another common heuristic that people use for making judgments is the  representativeness heuristic (Kahneman & Tversky 1973). Suppose we describe a person to you. He is quiet and shy, has an unassuming personality, and likes to work with numbers. Is this person more likely to be an accountant or an attorney? If you said accountant, you were probably using the representativeness heuristic. Our imaginary person is judged likely to be an accountant because he resembles, or is representative of the concept of, an accountant. When research participants are asked to make judgments such as these, the only thing that seems to matter is the representativeness of the description. For example, if told that the person described is in a room that contains 70 attorneys and 30 accountants, participants will still assume that he is an accountant.

inductive reasoning :  a type of reasoning in which we make judgments about likelihood from sets of evidence

inductively strong argument :  an inductive argument in which the beginning statements lead to a conclusion that is probably true

heuristic :  a shortcut strategy that we use to make judgments and solve problems. Although they are easy to use, they do not guarantee correct judgments and solutions

availability heuristic :  judging the frequency or likelihood of some event type according to how easily examples of the event can be called to mind (i.e., how available they are to memory)

representativeness heuristic:   judging the likelihood that something is a member of a category on the basis of how much it resembles a typical category member (i.e., how representative it is of the category)

Type 1 thinking : fast, automatic, and emotional thinking.

Type 2 thinking : slow, effortful, and logical thinking.

  • What percentage of workplace homicides are co-worker violence?

Many people get these questions wrong. The answers are 10%; stairs; skin; 6%. How close were your answers? Explain how the availability heuristic might have led you to make the incorrect judgments.

  • Can you think of some other judgments that you have made (or beliefs that you have) that might have been influenced by the availability heuristic?

7.3 Problem Solving

  • Please take a few minutes to list a number of problems that you are facing right now.
  • Now write about a problem that you recently solved.
  • What is your definition of a problem?

Mary has a problem. Her daughter, ordinarily quite eager to please, appears to delight in being the last person to do anything. Whether getting ready for school, going to piano lessons or karate class, or even going out with her friends, she seems unwilling or unable to get ready on time. Other people have different kinds of problems. For example, many students work at jobs, have numerous family commitments, and are facing a course schedule full of difficult exams, assignments, papers, and speeches. How can they find enough time to devote to their studies and still fulfill their other obligations? Speaking of students and their problems: Show that a ball thrown vertically upward with initial velocity v0 takes twice as much time to return as to reach the highest point (from Spiegel, 1981).

These are three very different situations, but we have called them all problems. What makes them all the same, despite the differences? A psychologist might define a  problem   as a situation with an initial state, a goal state, and a set of possible intermediate states. Somewhat more meaningfully, we might consider a problem a situation in which you are in here one state (e.g., daughter is always late), you want to be there in another state (e.g., daughter is not always late), and with no obvious way to get from here to there. Defined this way, each of the three situations we outlined can now be seen as an example of the same general concept, a problem. At this point, you might begin to wonder what is not a problem, given such a general definition. It seems that nearly every non-routine task we engage in could qualify as a problem. As long as you realize that problems are not necessarily bad (it can be quite fun and satisfying to rise to the challenge and solve a problem), this may be a useful way to think about it.

Can we identify a set of problem-solving skills that would apply to these very different kinds of situations? That task, in a nutshell, is a major goal of this section. Let us try to begin to make sense of the wide variety of ways that problems can be solved with an important observation: the process of solving problems can be divided into two key parts. First, people have to notice, comprehend, and represent the problem properly in their minds (called  problem representation ). Second, they have to apply some kind of solution strategy to the problem. Psychologists have studied both of these key parts of the process in detail.

When you first think about the problem-solving process, you might guess that most of our difficulties would occur because we are failing in the second step, the application of strategies. Although this can be a significant difficulty much of the time, the more important source of difficulty is probably problem representation. In short, we often fail to solve a problem because we are looking at it, or thinking about it, the wrong way.

problem :  a situation in which we are in an initial state, have a desired goal state, and there is a number of possible intermediate states (i.e., there is no obvious way to get from the initial to the goal state)

problem representation :  noticing, comprehending and forming a mental conception of a problem

Defining and Mentally Representing Problems in Order to Solve Them

So, the main obstacle to solving a problem is that we do not clearly understand exactly what the problem is. Recall the problem with Mary’s daughter always being late. One way to represent, or to think about, this problem is that she is being defiant. She refuses to get ready in time. This type of representation or definition suggests a particular type of solution. Another way to think about the problem, however, is to consider the possibility that she is simply being sidetracked by interesting diversions. This different conception of what the problem is (i.e., different representation) suggests a very different solution strategy. For example, if Mary defines the problem as defiance, she may be tempted to solve the problem using some kind of coercive tactics, that is, to assert her authority as her mother and force her to listen. On the other hand, if Mary defines the problem as distraction, she may try to solve it by simply removing the distracting objects.

As you might guess, when a problem is represented one way, the solution may seem very difficult, or even impossible. Seen another way, the solution might be very easy. For example, consider the following problem (from Nasar, 1998):

Two bicyclists start 20 miles apart and head toward each other, each going at a steady rate of 10 miles per hour. At the same time, a fly that travels at a steady 15 miles per hour starts from the front wheel of the southbound bicycle and flies to the front wheel of the northbound one, then turns around and flies to the front wheel of the southbound one again, and continues in this manner until he is crushed between the two front wheels. Question: what total distance did the fly cover?

Please take a few minutes to try to solve this problem.

Most people represent this problem as a question about a fly because, well, that is how the question is asked. The solution, using this representation, is to figure out how far the fly travels on the first leg of its journey, then add this total to how far it travels on the second leg of its journey (when it turns around and returns to the first bicycle), then continue to add the smaller distance from each leg of the journey until you converge on the correct answer. You would have to be quite skilled at math to solve this problem, and you would probably need some time and pencil and paper to do it.

If you consider a different representation, however, you can solve this problem in your head. Instead of thinking about it as a question about a fly, think about it as a question about the bicycles. They are 20 miles apart, and each is traveling 10 miles per hour. How long will it take for the bicycles to reach each other? Right, one hour. The fly is traveling 15 miles per hour; therefore, it will travel a total of 15 miles back and forth in the hour before the bicycles meet. Represented one way (as a problem about a fly), the problem is quite difficult. Represented another way (as a problem about two bicycles), it is easy. Changing your representation of a problem is sometimes the best—sometimes the only—way to solve it.

Unfortunately, however, changing a problem’s representation is not the easiest thing in the world to do. Often, problem solvers get stuck looking at a problem one way. This is called  fixation . Most people who represent the preceding problem as a problem about a fly probably do not pause to reconsider, and consequently change, their representation. A parent who thinks her daughter is being defiant is unlikely to consider the possibility that her behavior is far less purposeful.

Problem-solving fixation was examined by a group of German psychologists called Gestalt psychologists during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Karl Dunker, for example, discovered an important type of failure to take a different perspective called  functional fixedness . Imagine being a participant in one of his experiments. You are asked to figure out how to mount two candles on a door and are given an assortment of odds and ends, including a small empty cardboard box and some thumbtacks. Perhaps you have already figured out a solution: tack the box to the door so it forms a platform, then put the candles on top of the box. Most people are able to arrive at this solution. Imagine a slight variation of the procedure, however. What if, instead of being empty, the box had matches in it? Most people given this version of the problem do not arrive at the solution given above. Why? Because it seems to people that when the box contains matches, it already has a function; it is a matchbox. People are unlikely to consider a new function for an object that already has a function. This is functional fixedness.

Mental set is a type of fixation in which the problem solver gets stuck using the same solution strategy that has been successful in the past, even though the solution may no longer be useful. It is commonly seen when students do math problems for homework. Often, several problems in a row require the reapplication of the same solution strategy. Then, without warning, the next problem in the set requires a new strategy. Many students attempt to apply the formerly successful strategy on the new problem and therefore cannot come up with a correct answer.

The thing to remember is that you cannot solve a problem unless you correctly identify what it is to begin with (initial state) and what you want the end result to be (goal state). That may mean looking at the problem from a different angle and representing it in a new way. The correct representation does not guarantee a successful solution, but it certainly puts you on the right track.

A bit more optimistically, the Gestalt psychologists discovered what may be considered the opposite of fixation, namely  insight . Sometimes the solution to a problem just seems to pop into your head. Wolfgang Kohler examined insight by posing many different problems to chimpanzees, principally problems pertaining to their acquisition of out-of-reach food. In one version, a banana was placed outside of a chimpanzee’s cage and a short stick inside the cage. The stick was too short to retrieve the banana, but was long enough to retrieve a longer stick also located outside of the cage. This second stick was long enough to retrieve the banana. After trying, and failing, to reach the banana with the shorter stick, the chimpanzee would try a couple of random-seeming attempts, react with some apparent frustration or anger, then suddenly rush to the longer stick, the correct solution fully realized at this point. This sudden appearance of the solution, observed many times with many different problems, was termed insight by Kohler.

Lest you think it pertains to chimpanzees only, Karl Dunker demonstrated that children also solve problems through insight in the 1930s. More importantly, you have probably experienced insight yourself. Think back to a time when you were trying to solve a difficult problem. After struggling for a while, you gave up. Hours later, the solution just popped into your head, perhaps when you were taking a walk, eating dinner, or lying in bed.

fixation :  when a problem solver gets stuck looking at a problem a particular way and cannot change his or her representation of it (or his or her intended solution strategy)

functional fixedness :  a specific type of fixation in which a problem solver cannot think of a new use for an object that already has a function

mental set :  a specific type of fixation in which a problem solver gets stuck using the same solution strategy that has been successful in the past

insight :  a sudden realization of a solution to a problem

Solving Problems by Trial and Error

Correctly identifying the problem and your goal for a solution is a good start, but recall the psychologist’s definition of a problem: it includes a set of possible intermediate states. Viewed this way, a problem can be solved satisfactorily only if one can find a path through some of these intermediate states to the goal. Imagine a fairly routine problem, finding a new route to school when your ordinary route is blocked (by road construction, for example). At each intersection, you may turn left, turn right, or go straight. A satisfactory solution to the problem (of getting to school) is a sequence of selections at each intersection that allows you to wind up at school.

If you had all the time in the world to get to school, you might try choosing intermediate states randomly. At one corner you turn left, the next you go straight, then you go left again, then right, then right, then straight. Unfortunately, trial and error will not necessarily get you where you want to go, and even if it does, it is not the fastest way to get there. For example, when a friend of ours was in college, he got lost on the way to a concert and attempted to find the venue by choosing streets to turn onto randomly (this was long before the use of GPS). Amazingly enough, the strategy worked, although he did end up missing two out of the three bands who played that night.

Trial and error is not all bad, however. B.F. Skinner, a prominent behaviorist psychologist, suggested that people often behave randomly in order to see what effect the behavior has on the environment and what subsequent effect this environmental change has on them. This seems particularly true for the very young person. Picture a child filling a household’s fish tank with toilet paper, for example. To a child trying to develop a repertoire of creative problem-solving strategies, an odd and random behavior might be just the ticket. Eventually, the exasperated parent hopes, the child will discover that many of these random behaviors do not successfully solve problems; in fact, in many cases they create problems. Thus, one would expect a decrease in this random behavior as a child matures. You should realize, however, that the opposite extreme is equally counterproductive. If the children become too rigid, never trying something unexpected and new, their problem solving skills can become too limited.

Effective problem solving seems to call for a happy medium that strikes a balance between using well-founded old strategies and trying new ground and territory. The individual who recognizes a situation in which an old problem-solving strategy would work best, and who can also recognize a situation in which a new untested strategy is necessary is halfway to success.

Solving Problems with Algorithms and Heuristics

For many problems there is a possible strategy available that will guarantee a correct solution. For example, think about math problems. Math lessons often consist of step-by-step procedures that can be used to solve the problems. If you apply the strategy without error, you are guaranteed to arrive at the correct solution to the problem. This approach is called using an  algorithm , a term that denotes the step-by-step procedure that guarantees a correct solution. Because algorithms are sometimes available and come with a guarantee, you might think that most people use them frequently. Unfortunately, however, they do not. As the experience of many students who have struggled through math classes can attest, algorithms can be extremely difficult to use, even when the problem solver knows which algorithm is supposed to work in solving the problem. In problems outside of math class, we often do not even know if an algorithm is available. It is probably fair to say, then, that algorithms are rarely used when people try to solve problems.

Because algorithms are so difficult to use, people often pass up the opportunity to guarantee a correct solution in favor of a strategy that is much easier to use and yields a reasonable chance of coming up with a correct solution. These strategies are called  problem solving heuristics . Similar to what you saw in section 6.2 with reasoning heuristics, a problem solving heuristic is a shortcut strategy that people use when trying to solve problems. It usually works pretty well, but does not guarantee a correct solution to the problem. For example, one problem solving heuristic might be “always move toward the goal” (so when trying to get to school when your regular route is blocked, you would always turn in the direction you think the school is). A heuristic that people might use when doing math homework is “use the same solution strategy that you just used for the previous problem.”

By the way, we hope these last two paragraphs feel familiar to you. They seem to parallel a distinction that you recently learned. Indeed, algorithms and problem-solving heuristics are another example of the distinction between Type 1 thinking and Type 2 thinking.

Although it is probably not worth describing a large number of specific heuristics, two observations about heuristics are worth mentioning. First, heuristics can be very general or they can be very specific, pertaining to a particular type of problem only. For example, “always move toward the goal” is a general strategy that you can apply to countless problem situations. On the other hand, “when you are lost without a functioning gps, pick the most expensive car you can see and follow it” is specific to the problem of being lost. Second, all heuristics are not equally useful. One heuristic that many students know is “when in doubt, choose c for a question on a multiple-choice exam.” This is a dreadful strategy because many instructors intentionally randomize the order of answer choices. Another test-taking heuristic, somewhat more useful, is “look for the answer to one question somewhere else on the exam.”

You really should pay attention to the application of heuristics to test taking. Imagine that while reviewing your answers for a multiple-choice exam before turning it in, you come across a question for which you originally thought the answer was c. Upon reflection, you now think that the answer might be b. Should you change the answer to b, or should you stick with your first impression? Most people will apply the heuristic strategy to “stick with your first impression.” What they do not realize, of course, is that this is a very poor strategy (Lilienfeld et al, 2009). Most of the errors on exams come on questions that were answered wrong originally and were not changed (so they remain wrong). There are many fewer errors where we change a correct answer to an incorrect answer. And, of course, sometimes we change an incorrect answer to a correct answer. In fact, research has shown that it is more common to change a wrong answer to a right answer than vice versa (Bruno, 2001).

The belief in this poor test-taking strategy (stick with your first impression) is based on the  confirmation bias   (Nickerson, 1998; Wason, 1960). You first saw the confirmation bias in Module 1, but because it is so important, we will repeat the information here. People have a bias, or tendency, to notice information that confirms what they already believe. Somebody at one time told you to stick with your first impression, so when you look at the results of an exam you have taken, you will tend to notice the cases that are consistent with that belief. That is, you will notice the cases in which you originally had an answer correct and changed it to the wrong answer. You tend not to notice the other two important (and more common) cases, changing an answer from wrong to right, and leaving a wrong answer unchanged.

Because heuristics by definition do not guarantee a correct solution to a problem, mistakes are bound to occur when we employ them. A poor choice of a specific heuristic will lead to an even higher likelihood of making an error.

algorithm :  a step-by-step procedure that guarantees a correct solution to a problem

problem solving heuristic :  a shortcut strategy that we use to solve problems. Although they are easy to use, they do not guarantee correct judgments and solutions

confirmation bias :  people’s tendency to notice information that confirms what they already believe

An Effective Problem-Solving Sequence

You may be left with a big question: If algorithms are hard to use and heuristics often don’t work, how am I supposed to solve problems? Robert Sternberg (1996), as part of his theory of what makes people successfully intelligent (Module 8) described a problem-solving sequence that has been shown to work rather well:

  • Identify the existence of a problem.  In school, problem identification is often easy; problems that you encounter in math classes, for example, are conveniently labeled as problems for you. Outside of school, however, realizing that you have a problem is a key difficulty that you must get past in order to begin solving it. You must be very sensitive to the symptoms that indicate a problem.
  • Define the problem.  Suppose you realize that you have been having many headaches recently. Very likely, you would identify this as a problem. If you define the problem as “headaches,” the solution would probably be to take aspirin or ibuprofen or some other anti-inflammatory medication. If the headaches keep returning, however, you have not really solved the problem—likely because you have mistaken a symptom for the problem itself. Instead, you must find the root cause of the headaches. Stress might be the real problem. For you to successfully solve many problems it may be necessary for you to overcome your fixations and represent the problems differently. One specific strategy that you might find useful is to try to define the problem from someone else’s perspective. How would your parents, spouse, significant other, doctor, etc. define the problem? Somewhere in these different perspectives may lurk the key definition that will allow you to find an easier and permanent solution.
  • Formulate strategy.  Now it is time to begin planning exactly how the problem will be solved. Is there an algorithm or heuristic available for you to use? Remember, heuristics by their very nature guarantee that occasionally you will not be able to solve the problem. One point to keep in mind is that you should look for long-range solutions, which are more likely to address the root cause of a problem than short-range solutions.
  • Represent and organize information.  Similar to the way that the problem itself can be defined, or represented in multiple ways, information within the problem is open to different interpretations. Suppose you are studying for a big exam. You have chapters from a textbook and from a supplemental reader, along with lecture notes that all need to be studied. How should you (represent and) organize these materials? Should you separate them by type of material (text versus reader versus lecture notes), or should you separate them by topic? To solve problems effectively, you must learn to find the most useful representation and organization of information.
  • Allocate resources.  This is perhaps the simplest principle of the problem solving sequence, but it is extremely difficult for many people. First, you must decide whether time, money, skills, effort, goodwill, or some other resource would help to solve the problem Then, you must make the hard choice of deciding which resources to use, realizing that you cannot devote maximum resources to every problem. Very often, the solution to problem is simply to change how resources are allocated (for example, spending more time studying in order to improve grades).
  • Monitor and evaluate solutions.  Pay attention to the solution strategy while you are applying it. If it is not working, you may be able to select another strategy. Another fact you should realize about problem solving is that it never does end. Solving one problem frequently brings up new ones. Good monitoring and evaluation of your problem solutions can help you to anticipate and get a jump on solving the inevitable new problems that will arise.

Please note that this as  an  effective problem-solving sequence, not  the  effective problem solving sequence. Just as you can become fixated and end up representing the problem incorrectly or trying an inefficient solution, you can become stuck applying the problem-solving sequence in an inflexible way. Clearly there are problem situations that can be solved without using these skills in this order.

Additionally, many real-world problems may require that you go back and redefine a problem several times as the situation changes (Sternberg et al. 2000). For example, consider the problem with Mary’s daughter one last time. At first, Mary did represent the problem as one of defiance. When her early strategy of pleading and threatening punishment was unsuccessful, Mary began to observe her daughter more carefully. She noticed that, indeed, her daughter’s attention would be drawn by an irresistible distraction or book. Fresh with a re-representation of the problem, she began a new solution strategy. She began to remind her daughter every few minutes to stay on task and remind her that if she is ready before it is time to leave, she may return to the book or other distracting object at that time. Fortunately, this strategy was successful, so Mary did not have to go back and redefine the problem again.

Pick one or two of the problems that you listed when you first started studying this section and try to work out the steps of Sternberg’s problem solving sequence for each one.

a mental representation of a category of things in the world

an assumption about the truth of something that is not stated. Inferences come from our prior knowledge and experience, and from logical reasoning

knowledge about one’s own cognitive processes; thinking about your thinking

individuals who are less competent tend to overestimate their abilities more than individuals who are more competent do

Thinking like a scientist in your everyday life for the purpose of drawing correct conclusions. It entails skepticism; an ability to identify biases, distortions, omissions, and assumptions; and excellent deductive and inductive reasoning, and problem solving skills.

a way of thinking in which you refrain from drawing a conclusion or changing your mind until good evidence has been provided

an inclination, tendency, leaning, or prejudice

a type of reasoning in which the conclusion is guaranteed to be true any time the statements leading up to it are true

a set of statements in which the beginning statements lead to a conclusion

an argument for which true beginning statements guarantee that the conclusion is true

a type of reasoning in which we make judgments about likelihood from sets of evidence

an inductive argument in which the beginning statements lead to a conclusion that is probably true

fast, automatic, and emotional thinking

slow, effortful, and logical thinking

a shortcut strategy that we use to make judgments and solve problems. Although they are easy to use, they do not guarantee correct judgments and solutions

udging the frequency or likelihood of some event type according to how easily examples of the event can be called to mind (i.e., how available they are to memory)

judging the likelihood that something is a member of a category on the basis of how much it resembles a typical category member (i.e., how representative it is of the category)

a situation in which we are in an initial state, have a desired goal state, and there is a number of possible intermediate states (i.e., there is no obvious way to get from the initial to the goal state)

noticing, comprehending and forming a mental conception of a problem

when a problem solver gets stuck looking at a problem a particular way and cannot change his or her representation of it (or his or her intended solution strategy)

a specific type of fixation in which a problem solver cannot think of a new use for an object that already has a function

a specific type of fixation in which a problem solver gets stuck using the same solution strategy that has been successful in the past

a sudden realization of a solution to a problem

a step-by-step procedure that guarantees a correct solution to a problem

The tendency to notice and pay attention to information that confirms your prior beliefs and to ignore information that disconfirms them.

a shortcut strategy that we use to solve problems. Although they are easy to use, they do not guarantee correct judgments and solutions

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Thinking and Intelligence

Introduction to Thinking and Problem-Solving

What you’ll learn to do: describe cognition and problem-solving strategies.

A man sitting down in "The Thinker" pose.

Imagine all of your thoughts as if they were physical entities, swirling rapidly inside your mind. How is it possible that the brain is able to move from one thought to the next in an organized, orderly fashion? The brain is endlessly perceiving, processing, planning, organizing, and remembering—it is always active. Yet, you don’t notice most of your brain’s activity as you move throughout your daily routine. This is only one facet of the complex processes involved in cognition. Simply put, cognition is thinking, and it encompasses the processes associated with perception, knowledge, problem solving, judgment, language, and memory. Scientists who study cognition are searching for ways to understand how we integrate, organize, and utilize our conscious cognitive experiences without being aware of all of the unconscious work that our brains are doing (for example, Kahneman, 2011).

Learning Objectives

  • Distinguish between concepts and prototypes
  • Explain the difference between natural and artificial concepts
  • Describe problem solving strategies, including algorithms and heuristics
  • Explain some common roadblocks to effective problem solving

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5.7 Introduction to Thinking and Problem Solving

4 min read • december 22, 2022

Sadiyya Holsey

Sadiyya Holsey

Dalia Savy

Haseung Jun

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So, we just went over memory, but how do we actually think and problem solve? 🤔

Problem Solving

There are two different ways by which you could solve problems:

An algorithm is a step by step method that guarantees to solve a particular problem.  

If you lost your phone📱, the algorithm might look like this: 

Remember where you put the phone last. If you don’t, go to the next step. ⤵️

Retrace your steps. If you can’t, go to the next step.⤵️

Call your phone to determine the location.

Algorithms are process oriented 🔄

Heuristics 

A heuristic is also known as a “rule of thumb.” Using heuristic is a quick way to solve a problem 💨 , but is usually less effective than using an algorithm (more error prone). Heuristics also involve using trial and error ❌

An example of a heuristic would be trying to find the x value that makes this equal true: 3x+6=24. You might plug in multiple x values until you determine the x value that works. 

Heuristics are the opposite of algorithms and are more result oriented. We use our mental set , schemas , prototypes , and concepts automatically when using heuristics .

How would you solve 3x624 using an algorithm?

Instead of using a heuristic and just plugging in answers till you find the right one, you could also solve this problem step by step using an algorithm . The steps may look like this:

Subtract 6 on both sides: 3x=18

Divide by 3 on both sides: x=6

You use a mixture of these two when taking a test and overall in everyday life activities🏃🍳.

Trial and Error

Trial and error is when you try to solve a problem multiple times using multiple methods. If you try to solve a problem one time using one method, the next time you solve it, you may use a different method. This process is repeated until a solution is reached.

Image Courtesy of Giphy .

How do we think?

A mental set is when individuals try to solve a problem the same way all the time because it has worked in the past. However, that doesn’t mean this problem solving method is applicable to the problem at hand or will work for other people. Having a mental set makes it harder to solve problems. Similarly, fixation is the inability to look at a problem with a different perspective.

Intuition is colloquially known as a “gut feeling.” It is sensing something without a direct reason and basically an automatic thought💾

When problem-solving and making difficult decisions, our brain intuits for us.

As we learn and grow, our intuition does, too. Our learned associations surface as this gut feeling that we have because of how we know the world works around us 🌎

Insight was discovered by Wolfgang Kohler. It occurs when an individual has an all-of the sudden understanding when solving a problem or learning something. It's that light bulb💡 moment!

Inductive Reasoning

Reasoning from something specific to something general, which puts your thought into concepts and groups.

Deductive Reasoning

Reasoning from something general to something specific. Think of mind-maps: you have one central idea in the middle (general) and then branch out into specific ideas.

These are usually more logical 🤔

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Image Courtesy of Kristjan Pecanac .

Did you ever wonder how we get our creativity and to the extent to which it exists? Being creative is having the ability to produce ideas that are valuable. That's it; we're all creative in our own way.

There are five components of creativity 📸:

Expertise —The more knowledge we have, the more ideas we build. Knowledge is the foundation of every idea that comes about.

Generally, greater intelligence leads to a higher creativity 🎭 According to the threshold theory, a certain level of intelligence is necessary for creative work. However, it's not necessary sufficient, meaning other factors play in when it comes to creativity .

Imaginative thinking skills —In order to be creative, you must be open-minded and see things in different ways. These skills also include being able to make connections and recognize patterns in ideas.

A venturesome personality —Be willing to take risks, explore ideas, and try new things! 🧗

Intrinsic Motivation —This is to be driven by your interests and the will to explore for your own satisfaction.

A creative environment —All the above help fuel your creativity , but creativity can't exist without a supportive environment🌲

There are two different ways of thinking:

Convergent Thinking

This is the more logical way of thinking, in which we narrow the solutions to a problem till we find the best one. Convergent thinking is used in IQ and intelligence tests.

Divergent Thinking

The more creative way of thinking! You can think of this as brainstorming and diverging into different directions of thought. Rather than finding the best solution, divergent thinkers expand the number of solutions.

Divergent thinkers have a much easier time when problem solving since they have more of an open mind to trying different solutions.

Key Terms to Review ( 17 )

Creative Environment

Imaginative Thinking Skills

Intrinsic Motivation

Venturesome Personality

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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. 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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Chapter 7: Critical and Creative Thinking

Chapter 7: Critical and Creative Thinking

Learning Framework: Effective Strategies for College Success

Learning Objectives

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

  • Define critical thinking
  • Describe the role that logic plays in critical thinking
  • Describe how critical thinking skills can be used to evaluate information
  • Apply the CRAAP test to evaluate sources of information
  • Identify strategies for developing yourself as a critical thinker
  • Identify applications in education and one's career where creative thinking is relevant and beneficial
  • Explore key elements and stages in the creative process
  • Apply specific skills for stimulating creative perspectives and innovative options
  • Integrate critical and creative thinking in the process of problem-solving

Critical and Creative Thinking

Critical Thinking

As a college student, you are tasked with engaging and expanding your thinking skills. One of the most important of these skills is critical thinking because it relates to nearly all tasks, situations, topics, careers, environments, challenges, and opportunities. It is a “domain-general” thinking skill, not one that is specific to a particular subject area.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking  is clear, reasonable, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do (Robert Ennis.) It means asking probing questions like “How do we know?” or “Is this true in every case or just in this instance?” It involves being skeptical and challenging assumptions rather than simply memorizing facts or blindly accepting what you hear or read.

Imagine, for example, that you’re reading a history textbook. You wonder who wrote it and why, because you detect certain biases in the writing. You find that the author has a limited scope of research focused only on a particular group within a population. In this case, your critical thinking reveals that there are “other sides to the story.”

Who are critical thinkers, and what characteristics do they have in common? Critical thinkers are usually curious and reflective people. They like to explore and probe new areas and seek knowledge, clarification, and new solutions. They ask pertinent questions, evaluate statements and arguments, and they distinguish between facts and opinion. They are also willing to examine their own beliefs, possessing a manner of humility that allows them to admit lack of knowledge or understanding when needed. They are open to changing their mind. Perhaps most of all, they actively enjoy learning, and seeking new knowledge is a lifelong pursuit. This may well be you!

No matter where you are on the road to being a critical thinker, you can always more fully develop and finely tune your skills. Doing so will help you develop more balanced arguments, express yourself clearly, read critically, and glean important information efficiently. Critical thinking skills will help you in any profession or any circumstance of life, from science to art to business to teaching. With critical thinking, you become a clearer thinker and problem solver.

The following video, from Lawrence Bland, presents the major concepts and benefits of critical thinking.

Critical Thinking and Logic

Critical thinking is fundamentally a process of questioning information and data and then reflecting on and assessing what you discover to arrive at a reasonable conclusion. You may question the information you read in a textbook, or you may question what a politician or a professor or a classmate says.

You can also question a commonly held belief or a new idea. It is equally important (and even more challenging) to question your own thinking and beliefs! With critical thinking, anything and everything is subject to question and examination for the purpose of logically constructing reasoned perspectives.

What Is Logic?

The word  logic  comes from the Ancient Greek  logike , referring to the science or art of reasoning. Using logic, a person evaluates arguments and reasoning and strives to distinguish between good and bad reasoning, or between truth and falsehood. Using logic, you can evaluate the ideas and claims of others, make good decisions, and form sound beliefs about the world.

Questions of Logic in Critical Thinking

Let’s use a simple example of applying logic to a critical-thinking situation. In this hypothetical scenario, a man has a Ph.D. in political science, and he works as a professor at a local college. His wife works at the college, too. They have three young children in the local school system, and their family is well known in the community. The man is now running for political office. Are his credentials and experience sufficient for entering public office? Will he be effective in the political office? Some voters might believe that his personal life and current job, on the surface, suggest he will do well in the position, and they will vote for him. In truth, the characteristics described don’t guarantee that the man will do a good job. The information is somewhat irrelevant. What else might you want to know? How about whether the man had already held a political office and done a good job? In this case, we want to think critically about how much information is adequate in order to make a decision based on  logic  instead of  assumptions.

The following questions, presented in Figure 1, below, are ones you may apply to formulate a logical, reasoned perspective in the above scenario or any other situation:

  • What’s happening?  Gather the basic information and begin to think of questions.
  • Why is it important?  Ask yourself why it’s significant and whether or not you agree.
  • What don’t I see?  Is there anything important missing?
  • How do I know?  Ask yourself where the information came from and how it was constructed.
  • Who is saying it?  What’s the position of the speaker and what is influencing them?
  • What else?   What if?  What other ideas exist and are there other possibilities?

Infographic titled "Questions a Critical Thinker Asks." From the top, text reads: What's Happening? Gather the basic information and begin to think of questions (image of two stick figures talking to each other). Why is it Important? Ask yourself why it's significant and whether or not you agree. (Image of bearded stick figure sitting on a rock.) What Don't I See? Is there anything important missing? (Image of stick figure wearing a blindfold, whistling, walking away from a sign labeled Answers.) How Do I Know? Ask yourself where the information came from and how it was constructed. (Image of stick figure in a lab coat, glasses, holding a beaker.) Who is Saying It? What's the position of the speaker and what is influencing them? (Image of stick figure reading a newspaper.) What Else? What If? What other ideas exist and are there other possibilities? (Stick figure version of Albert Einstein with a thought bubble saying "If only time were relative...".

Problem-Solving with Critical Thinking

For most people, a typical day is filled with critical thinking and problem-solving challenges. In fact, critical thinking and problem-solving go hand-in-hand. They both refer to using knowledge, facts, and data to solve problems effectively. But with problem-solving, you are specifically identifying, selecting, and defending your solution. Below are some examples of using critical thinking to problem-solve:

  • Your roommate was upset and said some unkind words to you, which put a crimp in the relationship. You try to see through the angry behaviors to determine how you might best support the roommate and help bring the relationship back to a comfortable spot.
  • Your campus club has been languishing due to a lack of participation and funds. The new club president, though, is a marketing major and has identified some strategies to interest students in joining and supporting the club. Implementation is forthcoming.
  • Your final art class project challenges you to conceptualize form in new ways. On the last day of class when students present their projects, you describe the techniques you used to fulfill the assignment. You explain why and how you selected that approach.
  • Your math teacher sees that the class is not quite grasping a concept. They use clever questioning to dispel anxiety and guide you to a new understanding of the concept.

You have a job interview for a position that you feel you are only partially qualified for, although you really want the job and are excited about the prospects. You analyze how you will explain your skills and experiences in a way to show that you are a good match for the prospective employer.

  • You are doing well in college, and most of your college and living expenses are covered. But there are some gaps between what you want and what you feel you can afford. You analyze your income, savings, and budget to better calculate what you will need to stay in college and maintain your desired level of spending.

Evaluating Information with Critical Thinking

Evaluating information can be one of the most complex tasks you will be faced with in college. But if you utilize the following four strategies, you will be well on your way to success:

  • Read for understanding
  • Examine arguments
  • Clarify thinking
  • Cultivate “habits of mind”

Read for Understanding

When you read, take notes or mark the text to track your thinking about what you are reading. As you make connections and ask questions in response to what you read,  you monitor your comprehension and enhance your long-term understanding of the material. You will want to mark important arguments and key facts. Indicate where you agree and disagree or have further questions. You don’t necessarily need to read every word, but make sure you understand the concepts or the intentions behind what is written. See the chapter on  Active Reading Strategies   for additional tips.

Examine Arguments

When you examine arguments or claims that an author, speaker, or other source is making, your goal is to identify and examine the hard facts. You can use the spectrum of authority strategy for this purpose. The spectrum of authority strategy assists you in identifying the “hot” end of an argument—feelings, beliefs, cultural influences, and societal influences—and the “cold” end of an argument—scientific influences. The most compelling arguments balance elements from both ends of the spectrum. The following video explains this strategy in further detail:

Clarify Thinking

When you use critical thinking to evaluate information, you need to clarify your thinking to yourself and likely to others. Doing this well is mainly a process of asking and answering probing questions, such as the logic questions discussed earlier. Design your questions to fit your needs, but be sure to cover adequate ground. What is the purpose? What question are we trying to answer? What point of view is being expressed? What assumptions are we or others making? What are the facts and data we know, and how do we know them? What are the concepts we’re working with? What are the conclusions, and do they make sense? What are the implications?

Cultivate “Habits of Mind”

“Habits of mind” are the personal commitments, values, and standards you have about the principle of good thinking. Consider your intellectual commitments, values, and standards. Do you approach problems with an open mind, a respect for truth, and an inquiring attitude? Some good habits to have when thinking critically are being receptive to having your opinions changed, having respect for others, being independent and not accepting something is true until you’ve had the time to examine the available evidence, being fair-minded, having respect for a reason, having an inquiring mind, not making assumptions, and always, especially, questioning your own conclusions—in other words, developing an intellectual work ethic. Try to work these qualities into your daily life.

In 2010, a textbook being used in fourth-grade classrooms in Virginia became big news for all the wrong reasons. The book,  Our Virginia  by Joy Masoff, had caught the attention of a parent who was helping her child do her homework, according to  an article in  The Washington Post . Carol Sheriff was a historian for the College of William and Mary and as she worked with her daughter, she began to notice some glaring historical errors, not the least of which was a passage that described how thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War.

Further investigation into the book revealed that, although the author had written textbooks on a variety of subjects, she was not a trained historian. The research she had done to write  Our Virginia,  and in particular the information she included about Black Confederate soldiers, was done through the Internet and included sources created by groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization that promotes views of history that de-emphasize the role of slavery in the Civil War.

How did a book with errors like these come to be used as part of the curriculum and who was at fault? Was it Masoff for using untrustworthy sources for her research? Was it the editors who allowed the book to be published with these errors intact? Was it the school board for approving the book without more closely reviewing its accuracy?

There are a number of issues at play in the case of  Our Virginia , but there’s no question that evaluating sources is an important part of the research process and doesn’t just apply to Internet sources. Using inaccurate, irrelevant, or poorly researched sources can affect the quality of your own work. Being able to understand and apply the concepts that follow is crucial to becoming a more savvy user and creator of information.

When you begin evaluating sources, what should you consider? The  CRAAP test  is a series of common evaluative elements you can use to evaluate the  C urrency,  R elevance,  A uthority,  A ccuracy, and  P urpose of your sources. The CRAAP test was developed by librarians at California State University at Chico and it gives you a good, overall set of elements to look for when evaluating a resource. Let’s consider what each of these evaluative elements means. 

One of the most important and interesting steps to take as you begin researching a subject is selecting the resources that will help you build your thesis and support your assertions. Certain topics require you to pay special attention to how current your resource is—because they are time sensitive, because they have evolved so much over the years, or because new research comes out on the topic so frequently. When evaluating the currency of an article, consider the following:

  • When was the item written, and how frequently does the publication come out?
  • Is there evidence of newly added or updated information in the item?
  • If the information is dated, is it still suitable for your topic?
  • How frequently does information change about your topic?

Understanding what resources are most applicable to your subject and why they are applicable can help you focus and refine your thesis. Many topics are broad and searching for information on them produces a wide range of resources. Narrowing your topic and focusing on resources specific to your needs can help reduce the piles of information and help you focus in on what is truly important to read and reference. When determining relevance consider the following:

  • Does the item contain information relevant to your argument or thesis?
  • Read the article’s introduction, thesis, and conclusion.
  • Scan main headings and identify article keywords.
  • For book resources, start with the index or table of contents—how wide a scope does the item have? Will you use part or all of this resource?
  • Does the information presented support or refute your ideas?
  • If the information refutes your ideas, how will this change your argument?
  • Does the material provide you with current information?
  • What is the material’s intended audience?

Understanding more about your information’s source helps you determine when, how, and where to use that information. Is your author an expert on the subject? Do they have some personal stake in the argument they are making? What is the author or information producer’s background? When determining the authority of your source, consider the following:

  • What are the author’s credentials?
  • What is the author’s level of education, experience, and/or occupation?
  • What qualifies the author to write about this topic?
  • What affiliations does the author have? Could these affiliations affect their position?
  • What organization or body published the information? Is it authoritative? Does it have an explicit position or bias?

Determining where information comes from, if the evidence supports the information, and if the information has been reviewed or refereed can help you decide how and whether to use a source. When determining the accuracy of a source, consider the following:

  • Is the source well-documented? Does it include footnotes, citations, or a bibliography?
  • Is information in the source presented as fact, opinion, or propaganda? Are biases clear?
  • Can you verify information from the references cited in the source?
  • Is the information written clearly and free of typographical and grammatical mistakes? Does the source look to be edited before publication? A clean, well-presented paper does not always indicate accuracy, but usually at least means more eyes have been on the information.

Knowing why the information was created is a key to evaluation. Understanding the reason or purpose of the information, if the information has clear intentions, or if the information is fact, opinion, or propaganda will help you decide how and why to use information:

  • Is the author’s purpose to inform, sell, persuade, or entertain?
  • Does the source have an obvious bias or prejudice?
  • Is the article presented from multiple points of view?
  • Does the author omit important facts or data that might disprove their argument?
  • Is the author’s language informal, joking, emotional, or impassioned?
  • Is the information clearly supported by evidence?

When you feel overwhelmed by the information you are finding, the CRAAP test can help you determine which information is the most useful to your research topic. How you respond to what you find out using the CRAAP test will depend on your topic. Maybe you want to use two overtly biased resources to inform an overview of typical arguments in a particular field. Perhaps your topic is historical and currency means the past hundred years rather than the past one or two years. Use the CRAAP test, be knowledgeable about your topic, and you will be on your way to evaluating information efficiently and well!

Next, visit the  ACC Library’s Website  for a tutorial and quiz on using the CRAAP test to evaluate sources.

Developing Yourself As a Critical Thinker

Dark-framed reading glasses laid down on top of a printed page

Critical thinking is a fundamental skill for college students, but it should also be a lifelong pursuit. Below are additional strategies to develop yourself as a critical thinker in college and in everyday life:

  • Reflect and practice : Always reflect on what you’ve learned. Is it true all the time? How did you arrive at your conclusions?
  • Use wasted time : It’s certainly important to make time for relaxing, but if you find you are indulging in too much of a good thing, think about using your time more constructively. Determine when you do your best thinking and try to learn something new during that part of the day.
  • Redefine the way you see things : It can be very uninteresting to always think the same way. Challenge yourself to see familiar things in new ways. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and consider things from a different angle or perspective.  If you’re trying to solve a problem, list all your concerns: what you need in order to solve it, who can help, what some possible barriers might be, etc. It’s often possible to reframe a problem as an opportunity. Try to find a solution where there seems to be none.
  • Analyze the influences on your thinking and in your life : Why do you think or feel the way you do? Analyze your influences. Think about who in your life influences you. Do you feel or react a certain way because of social convention, or because you believe it is what is expected of you? Try to break out of any molds that may be constricting you.
  • Express yourself : Critical thinking also involves being able to express yourself clearly. Most important in expressing yourself clearly is stating one point at a time. You might be inclined to argue every thought, but you might have greater impact if you focus just on your main arguments. This will help others to follow your thinking clearly. For more abstract ideas, assume that your audience may not understand. Provide examples, analogies, or metaphors where you can.
  • Enhance your wellness : It’s easier to think critically when you take care of your mental and physical health. Try taking activity breaks throughout the day to reach 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Scheduling physical activity into your day can help lower stress and increase mental alertness. Also,  do your most difficult work when you have the most energy . Think about the time of day you are most effective and have the most energy. Plan to do your most difficult work during these times. And be sure to  reach out for help i f you feel you need assistance with your mental or physical health (see  Maintaining Your Mental (and Physical) Health  for more information).

Complete ACTIVITY 1:  REFLECT ON CRITICAL THINKING at the end of the chapter to deepen your understanding of critical thinking in action. 

Creative thinking.

Creative thinking  is an invaluable skill for college students because it helps you look at problems and situations from a fresh perspective. Creative thinking is a way to develop novel or unorthodox solutions that do not depend wholly on past or current solutions. It’s a way of employing strategies to clear your mind so that your thoughts and ideas can transcend what appears to be the limitations of a problem. Creative thinking is a way of moving beyond barriers and it can be understood as a  skill —as opposed to an inborn talent or natural “gift”—that can be taught as well as learned.

However, the ability to think and act in creative ways is a natural ability that we all exhibited as children. The curiosity, wonder, imagination, playfulness, and persistence in obtaining new skills are what transformed us into the powerful learners that we became well before we entered school. As a creative thinker now, you are curious, optimistic, and imaginative. You see problems as interesting opportunities, and you challenge assumptions and suspend judgment. You don’t give up easily. You work hard. Is this you? Even if you don’t yet see yourself as a competent creative thinker or problem-solver yet, you can learn solid skills and techniques to help you become one.

Creative Thinking in Education

College is a great ground for enhancing creative thinking skills. The following are some examples of college activities that can stimulate creative thinking. Are any familiar to you? What are some aspects of your own college experience that require you to think creatively?

  • Design sample exam questions to test your knowledge as you study for a final.
  • Devise a social media strategy for a club on campus.
  • Propose an education plan for a major you are designing for yourself.
  • Prepare a speech that you will give in a debate in your course.
  • Arrange audience seats in your classroom to maximize attention during your presentation.
  • Participate in a brainstorming session with your classmates on how you will collaborate on a group project.
  • Draft a script for a video production that will be shown to several college administrators.
  • Compose a set of requests and recommendations for a campus office to improve its services for students.
  • Develop a marketing pitch for a mock business you are developing.
  • Develop a plan to reduce energy consumption in your home, apartment, or dorm.

How to Stimulate Creative Thinking

The following video,  How to Stimulate the Creative Process , identifies six strategies to stimulate your creative thinking.

  • Sleep on it . Over the years, researchers have found that the REM sleep cycle boosts our creativity and problem-solving abilities, providing us with innovative ideas or answers to vexing dilemmas when we awaken. Keep a pen and paper by the bed so you can write down your nocturnal insights if they wake you up.
  • Go for a run or hit the gym . Studies indicate that exercise stimulates creative thinking, and the brainpower boost lasts for a few hours.
  • Allow your mind to wander  a few times every day. Far from being a waste of time, daydreaming has been found to be an essential part of generating new ideas. If you’re stuck on a problem or creatively blocked, think about something else for a while.
  • Keep learning . Studying something far removed from your area of expertise is especially effective in helping you think in new ways.
  • Put yourself in nerve-racking situations  once in a while to fire up your brain. Fear and frustration can trigger innovative thinking.
  • Keep a notebook  with you, or create a file for ideas on your smartphone or laptop, so you always have a place to record fleeting thoughts. They’re sometimes the best ideas of all.

The following video, Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson, reinforces the idea that time allows creativity to flourish.

Watch this supplemental video by PBS Digital Studies: How To Be Creative | Off Book | PBS Digital Studio for a more in-depth look on how to become a “powerful creative person.”

Below is an article by Professor Tobin Quereau, called In Search of Creativity . Perhaps the article can help you think about some simple principles that can enhance your own creative thinking.

In Search of Creativity Tobin Quereau As I was searching through my files the other day for materials on creativity, I ran across some crumpled, yellowed notes which had no clear identification as to their source. Though I cannot remember exactly where they came from, I pass them along to you as an example of the absurd lengths to which some authors will go to get people’s attention. The notes contained five principles or practices with accompanying commentary which supposedly enhance creativity. I reprint them here as I found them and leave you to make your own judgment on the matter.... 1. Do It Poorly! One has to start somewhere and hardly anyone I know starts perfectly at anything. As a result, hardly anyone seems to start very much at all. Often times the quest for excellence quashes any attempt at writing, thinking, doing, saying, etc., since we all start rather poorly in the beginning. Therefore, I advocate more mediocrity as a means to success. Whatever you want, need, or have to do, start doing it! (Apologies to Nike, but this was written long before they stole the concept....) Do it poorly at first with pleasure, take a look or listen to what you’ve done, and then do it again. If you can turn out four good, honest, poor quality examples, the fifth time you should have enough information and experience to turn out something others will admire. And if you do the first four tries in private, only you need to know how you got there. 2. Waste Time! Don’t spend it all doing things. Give yourself time and permission to daydream, mull over, muse about your task or goal without leaping into unending action. “But what,” you say, “if I find myself musing more about the grocery shopping than the gross receipts?” Fine, just see what relationships you can come up with between groceries and gross receipts. (How about increasing the volume and lowering mark-ups? Or providing comfortable seating in the local superstore so that people can relax while shopping and thus have more energy with which to spend their money??) Whatever you do, just pay attention to what comes and get it down in writing somewhere somehow before it goes again. No need to waste ideas.... 3. Be Messy! (Not hard for some of us.) Don’t go for clarity before confusion has had time to teach you something new. In fact, I advocate starting with a large sheet of blank paper–anything up to 2 feet by 4 feet in size–and then filling it up as quickly and randomly as possible with everything that is, might be, or ought to be related to the task at hand. Then start drawing arrows, underlining, scratching through, highlighting, etc., to make a real mess that no one but you can decipher. (If you can’t figure it out either, that’s O.K., too–it doesn’t have to make sense in the beginning.) Then go back to Principle #1 and start doing something. 4. Make Mistakes! Search out your stumbling blocks. Celebrate your errors. Rejoice in your “wrongs” for in them lie riches. Consider your faux pas as feedback not failure and you’ll learn (and possibly even earn!) a lot more. Be like a research scientist and get something publishable out of whatever the data indicates. As one creative consultant, Sidney X. Shore, suggests, always ask, “What’s Good About It?” Some of our most precious inventions have resulted from clumsy hands and creative insight. 5. Forget Everything You Have Learned! (Except, perhaps, these principles!) Give yourself a chance to be a neophyte, return to innocence, start with “beginner’s mind”. In the Zen tradition of Japan, there is a saying in support of this approach because in the beginner’s mind all things are possible, in the expert’s mind only one or two. What would a five-year-old do with your task, goal, project, or problem? Take a risk and be naive again. Many major advances in math and science have come from young, wet-behind-the-ears upstarts who don’t know enough to get stuck like everyone else. Even Picasso worked hard at forgetting how to draw.... But I must stop! There was more to this unusual manuscript, but it would be a poor idea to prolong this further. As a responsible author, I don’t want to waste any more of your time on such ramblings. You know as well as I that such ideas would quickly make a mess of things. I am sure that the original author, whoever that was, has by now repudiated these mistaken notions which could be quite dangerous in the hands of untrained beginners. I even recall a reference to these principles being advocated for groups and teams as well as for individual practice—if you can imagine such a thing! It is a pity that the author or authors did not have more to offer, however, “In Search of Creativity” could have made a catchy title for a book....

Problem Solving with Creative Thinking

Creative problem-solving is a type of problem-solving that involves searching for new and novel solutions to problems. It’s a way to think “outside of the box.” Unlike critical thinking, which scrutinizes assumptions and uses reasoning, creative thinking is about generating alternative ideas— practices and solutions that are unique and effective. It’s about facing sometimes muddy and unclear problems and seeing how things can be done differently.

Complete ACTIVITY 2:  ASSESS YOUR CREATIVE-PROBLEM SOLVING SKILLS  at the end of the chapter to see what skills you currently have and which new ones you can develop further. 

As you continue to develop your creative thinking skills, be alert to perceptions about creative thinking that could slow down progress. Remember that creative thinking and problem-solving are ways to transcend the limitations of a problem and see past barriers.

Critical and creative thinking complement each other when it comes to problem-solving. The process of alternatively focusing and expanding your thinking can generate more creative, innovative, and effective outcomes. The following words, by Dr. Andrew Robert Baker, are excerpted from his “Thinking Critically and Creatively ” essay. Dr. Baker illuminates some of the many ways that college students will be exposed to critical and creative thinking and how it can enrich their learning experiences.

THINKING CRITICALLY AND CREATIVELY Critical thinking skills are perhaps the most fundamental skills involved in making judgments and solving problems. You use them every day, and you can continue improving them. The ability to think critically about a matter—to analyze a question, situation, or problem down to its most basic parts—is what helps us evaluate the accuracy and truthfulness of statements, claims, and information we read and hear. It is the sharp knife that, when honed, separates fact from fiction, honesty from lies, and the accurate from the misleading. We all use this skill to one degree or another almost every day. For example, we use critical thinking every day as we consider the latest consumer products and why one particular product is the best among its peers. Is it a quality product because a celebrity endorses it? Because a lot of other people may have used it? Because it is made by one company versus another? Or perhaps because it is made in one country or another? These are questions representative of critical thinking. The academic setting demands more of us in terms of critical thinking than everyday life. It demands that we evaluate information and analyze myriad issues. It is the environment where our critical thinking skills can be the difference between success and failure. In this environment we must consider information in an analytical, critical manner. We must ask questions—What is the source of this information? Is this source an expert one and what makes it so? Are there multiple perspectives to consider on an issue? Do multiple sources agree or disagree on an issue? Does quality research substantiate information or opinion? Do I have any personal biases that may affect my consideration of this information? It is only through purposeful, frequent, intentional questioning such as this that we can sharpen our critical thinking skills and improve as students, learners and researchers. While critical thinking analyzes information and roots out the true nature and facets of problems, it is creative thinking that drives progress forward when it comes to solving these problems. Exceptional creative thinkers are people that invent new solutions to existing problems that do not rely on past or current solutions. They are the ones who invent solution C when everyone else is still arguing between A and B. Creative thinking skills involve using strategies to clear the mind so that our thoughts and ideas can transcend the current limitations of a problem and allow us to see beyond barriers that prevent new solutions from being found. Brainstorming is the simplest example of intentional creative thinking that most people have tried at least once. With the quick generation of many ideas at once, we can block-out our brain’s natural tendency to limit our solution-generating abilities so we can access and combine many possible solutions/thoughts and invent new ones. It is sort of like sprinting through a race’s finish line only to find there is new track on the other side and we can keep going, if we choose. As with critical thinking, higher education both demands creative thinking from us and is the perfect place to practice and develop the skill. Everything from word problems in a math class, to opinion or persuasive speeches and papers, call upon our creative thinking skills to generate new solutions and perspectives in response to our professor’s demands. Creative thinking skills ask questions such as—What if? Why not? What else is out there? Can I combine perspectives/solutions? What is something no one else has brought-up? What is being forgotten/ignored? What about ______? It is the opening of doors and options that follows problem-identification. Consider an assignment that required you to compare two different authors on the topic of education and select and defend one as better. Now add to this scenario that your professor clearly prefers one author over the other. While critical thinking can get you as far as identifying the similarities and differences between these authors and evaluating their merits, it is creative thinking that you must use if you wish to challenge your professor’s opinion and invent new perspectives on the authors that have not previously been considered. So, what can we do to develop our critical and creative thinking skills? Although many students may dislike it, group work is an excellent way to develop our thinking skills. Many times I have heard from students their disdain for working in groups based on scheduling, varied levels of commitment to the group or project, and personality conflicts too, of course. True—it’s not always easy, but that is why it is so effective. When we work collaboratively on a project or problem we bring many brains to bear on a subject. These different brains will naturally develop varied ways of solving or explaining problems and examining information. To the observant individual we see that this places us in a constant state of back and forth critical/creative thinking modes. For example, in group work we are simultaneously analyzing information and generating solutions on our own, while challenging other’s analyses/ideas and responding to challenges to our own analyses/ideas. This is part of why students tend to avoid group work—it challenges us as thinkers and forces us to analyze others while defending ourselves, which is not something we are used to or comfortable with as most of our educational experiences involve solo work. Your professors know this—that’s why we assign it—to help you grow as students, learners, and thinkers! —Dr. Andrew Robert Baker,  Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom

Problem-Solving Action Checklist

Problem-solving can be an efficient and rewarding process, especially if you are organized and mindful of critical steps and strategies. Remember to assume the attributes of a good critical thinker: if you are curious, reflective, knowledge-seeking, open to change, probing, organized, and ethical, your challenge or problem will be less of a hurdle, and you’ll be in a good position to find intelligent solutions. The steps outlined in this checklist will help you adhere to these qualities in your approach to any problem:

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Critical thinking is logical and reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do.
  • Critical thinking involves questioning and evaluating information.
  • Evaluating information is a complex, but essential, process. You can use the CRAAP test to help determine if sources and information are reliable.
  • Creative thinking is both a natural aspect of childhood and a re-learnable skill as an adult.
  • Creative thinking is as essential a skill as critical thinking and integrating them can contribute to  innovative and rewarding experiences in life.
  • Critical and creative thinking both contribute to our ability to solve problems in a variety of contexts.
  • You can take specific actions to develop and strengthen your critical and creative thinking skills.

ACTIVITY 1: REFLECT ON CRITICAL THINKING

  • Apply critical thinking strategies to your life

Directions:

  • Think about someone you consider to be a critical thinker (friend, professor, historical figure, etc). What qualities does he/she have?
  • Review some of the critical thinking strategies discussed on this page. Pick one strategy that makes sense to you. How can you apply this critical thinking technique to your academic work?
  • Habits of mind are attitudes and beliefs that influence how you approach the world (i.e., inquiring attitude, open mind, respect for truth, etc). What is one habit of mind you would like to actively develop over the next year? How will you develop a daily practice to cultivate this habit?
  • Write your responses in journal form, and submit according to your instructor’s guidelines.

ACTIVITY 2: ASSESS YOUR CREATIVE PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS

  • Access  Psychology Today ’s  Creative Problem-Solving Test  at the  Psychology Today  Web site.
  • Read the introductory text, which explains how creativity is linked to fundamental qualities of thinking, such as flexibility and tolerance of ambiguity.
  • Then advance to the questions by clicking on the “Take The Test” button. The test has 20 questions and will take roughly 10 minutes.
  • After finishing the test, you will receive a Snapshot Report with an introduction, a graph, and a personalized interpretation for one of your test scores.

Complete any further steps by following your instructor’s directions.

LICENSES AND ATTRIBUTIONS

CC LICENSED CONTENT, ORIGINAL

  • Critical and Creative Thinking  Authored by : Laura Lucas, Tobin Quereau, and Heather Syrett.  Provided by : Austin Community College.  License :  CC BY-NC-SA-4.0

CC LICENSED CONTENT, SPECIFIC ATTRIBUTION

  • Chapter cover image.  Authored by : Hans-Peter Gauster.  Provided by : Unsplash.  Located at :  https://unsplash.com/photos/3y1zF4hIPCg .  License :  CC0: No Rights Reserved
  • Creative Thinking Skills  in College Success.  Authored by : Linda Bruce.  Provided by : Lumen Learning.  Located at :  https://courses.lumenlearning.com/collegesuccess-lumen/chapter/creative-thinking-skills/ .  License :  CC BY 4.0
  • Critical Thinking  in Educational Psychology.  Authored by : Kelvin Seifert and Rosemary Sutton.  Provided by : Lumen Learning.  Located at:  https://courses.lumenlearning.com/educationalpsychology/chapter/critical-thinking/ .  License :  CC BY 4.0
  • Critical Thinking Skills  in College Success.   Authored by : Linda Bruce.  Provided by : Lumen Learning.  Located at :  https://courses.lumenlearning.com/collegesuccess-lumen/chapter/critical-thinking-skills/ .  License :  CC BY 4.0
  • Critical Thinking 101: Spectrum of Authority. Provided by: UCB Learn.  Located at :  https://youtu.be/9G5xooMN2_c .  License :  CC BY 4.0
  • Evaluate: Assessing Your Research Process and Findings  in Information Literacy.  Authored by : Bernnard, Bobish, Hecker, Holden, Hosier, Jacobsen, Loney, Bullis.  Provided by : Lumen Learning.  Located at :  https://courses.lumenlearning.com/informationliteracy/chapter/evaluate-assessing-your-research-process-and-findings/ .  License :  CC BY-NC-SA-4.0
  • Image.  Authored by : Mari Helin-Tuominen.  Provided by : Unsplash.  Located at :  https://unsplash.com/photos/ilSnKT1IMxE .  License :  CC0: No Rights Reserved

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED CONTENT

Where Good Ideas Come From.  Authored by : Steven Johnson. Provided by: Riverhead Books.  Located at :  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NugRZGDbPFU .  License :  All Rights Reserved .  License Terms : Standard YouTube License

How to Stimulate the Creative Process.  Provided by : Howcast.  Located at :  https://youtu.be/kPC8e-Jk5uw .  License :  All Rights Reserved .  License Terms : Standard YouTube License

Version History

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6 Thinking and Intelligence

Three side by side images are shown. On the left is a person lying in the grass with a book, looking off into the distance. In the middle is a sculpture of a person sitting on rock, with chin rested on hand, and the elbow of that hand rested on knee. The third is a drawing of a person sitting cross-legged with his head resting on his hand, elbow on knee.

What is the best way to solve a problem? How does a person who has never seen or touched snow in real life develop an understanding of the concept of snow? How do young children acquire the ability to learn language with no formal instruction? Psychologists who study thinking explore questions like these and are called cognitive psychologists.

Cognitive psychologists also study intelligence. What is intelligence, and how does it vary from person to person? Are “street smarts” a kind of intelligence, and if so, how do they relate to other types of intelligence? What does an IQ test really measure? These questions and more will be explored in this chapter as you study thinking and intelligence.

In other chapters, we discussed the cognitive processes of perception, learning, and memory. In this chapter, we will focus on high-level cognitive processes. As a part of this discussion, we will consider thinking and briefly explore the development and use of language. We will also discuss problem solving and creativity before ending with a discussion of how intelligence is measured and how our biology and environments interact to affect intelligence. After finishing this chapter, you will have a greater appreciation of the higher-level cognitive processes that contribute to our distinctiveness as a species.

Learning Objectives

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

  • Describe cognition
  • Distinguish concepts and prototypes
  • Explain the difference between natural and artificial concepts
  • Describe how schemata are organized and constructed

Imagine all of your thoughts as if they were physical entities, swirling rapidly inside your mind. How is it possible that the brain is able to move from one thought to the next in an organized, orderly fashion? The brain is endlessly perceiving, processing, planning, organizing, and remembering—it is always active. Yet, you don’t notice most of your brain’s activity as you move throughout your daily routine. This is only one facet of the complex processes involved in cognition. Simply put,  cognition  is thinking, and it encompasses the processes associated with perception, knowledge, problem solving, judgment, language, and memory. Scientists who study cognition are searching for ways to understand how we integrate, organize, and utilize our conscious cognitive experiences without being aware of all of the unconscious work that our brains are doing (for example, Kahneman, 2011).

Upon waking each morning, you begin thinking—contemplating the tasks that you must complete that day. In what order should you run your errands? Should you go to the bank, the cleaners, or the grocery store first? Can you get these things done before you head to class or will they need to wait until school is done? These thoughts are one example of cognition at work. Exceptionally complex, cognition is an essential feature of human consciousness, yet not all aspects of cognition are consciously experienced.

Cognitive psychology  is the field of psychology dedicated to examining how people think. It attempts to explain how and why we think the way we do by studying the interactions among human thinking, emotion, creativity, language, and problem solving, in addition to other cognitive processes. Cognitive psychologists strive to determine and measure different types of intelligence, why some people are better at problem solving than others, and how emotional intelligence affects success in the workplace, among countless other topics. They also sometimes focus on how we organize thoughts and information gathered from our environments into meaningful categories of thought, which will be discussed later.

Concepts and Prototypes

The human nervous system is capable of handling endless streams of information. The senses serve as the interface between the mind and the external environment, receiving stimuli and translating it into nerve impulses that are transmitted to the brain. The brain then processes this information and uses the relevant pieces to create thoughts, which can then be expressed through language or stored in memory for future use. To make this process more complex, the brain does not gather information from external environments only. When thoughts are formed, the mind synthesizes information from emotions and memories ( Figure 7.2 ). Emotion and memory are powerful influences on both our thoughts and behaviors.

The outline of a human head is shown. There is a box containing “Information, sensations” in front of the head. An arrow from this box points to another box containing “Emotions, memories” located where the front of the person's brain would be. An arrow from this second box points to a third box containing “Thoughts” located where the back of the person's brain would be. There are two arrows coming from “Thoughts.” One arrow points back to the second box, “Emotions, memories,” and the other arrow points to a fourth box, “Behavior.”

In order to organize this staggering amount of information, the mind has developed a “file cabinet” of sorts in the mind. The different files stored in the file cabinet are called concepts.  Concepts  are categories or groupings of linguistic information, images, ideas, or memories, such as life experiences. Concepts are, in many ways, big ideas that are generated by observing details, and categorizing and combining these details into cognitive structures. You use concepts to see the relationships among the different elements of your experiences and to keep the information in your mind organized and accessible.

Concepts are informed by our semantic memory (you will learn more about semantic memory in a later chapter) and are present in every aspect of our lives; however, one of the easiest places to notice concepts is inside a classroom, where they are discussed explicitly. When you study United States history, for example, you learn about more than just individual events that have happened in America’s past. You absorb a large quantity of information by listening to and participating in discussions, examining maps, and reading first-hand accounts of people’s lives. Your brain analyzes these details and develops an overall understanding of American history. In the process, your brain gathers details that inform and refine your understanding of related concepts like democracy, power, and freedom.

Concepts can be complex and abstract, like justice, or more concrete, like types of birds. In psychology, for example, Piaget’s stages of development are abstract concepts. Some concepts, like tolerance, are agreed upon by many people because they have been used in various ways over many years. Other concepts, like the characteristics of your ideal friend or your family’s birthday traditions, are personal and individualized. In this way, concepts touch every aspect of our lives, from our many daily routines to the guiding principles behind the way governments function.

Another technique used by your brain to organize information is the identification of prototypes for the concepts you have developed. A  prototype  is the best example or representation of a concept. For example, what comes to your mind when you think of a dog? Most likely your early experiences with dogs will shape what you imagine. If your first pet was a Golden Retriever, there is a good chance that this would be your prototype for the category of dogs.

Natural and Artificial Concepts

In psychology, concepts can be divided into two categories, natural and artificial.  Natural concepts  are created “naturally” through your experiences and can be developed from either direct or indirect experiences. For example, if you live in Essex Junction, Vermont, you have probably had a lot of direct experience with snow. You’ve watched it fall from the sky, you’ve seen lightly falling snow that barely covers the windshield of your car, and you’ve shoveled out 18 inches of fluffy white snow as you’ve thought, “This is perfect for skiing.” You’ve thrown snowballs at your best friend and gone sledding down the steepest hill in town. In short, you know snow. You know what it looks like, smells like, tastes like, and feels like. If, however, you’ve lived your whole life on the island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean, you may never have actually seen snow, much less tasted, smelled, or touched it. You know snow from the indirect experience of seeing pictures of falling snow—or from watching films that feature snow as part of the setting. Either way, snow is a natural concept because you can construct an understanding of it through direct observations, experiences with snow, or indirect knowledge (such as from films or books) ( Figure 7.3 ).

Photograph A shows a snow covered landscape with the sun shining over it. Photograph B shows a sphere shaped object perched atop the corner of a cube shaped object. There is also a triangular object shown.

An  artificial concept , on the other hand, is a concept that is defined by a specific set of characteristics. Various properties of geometric shapes, like squares and triangles, serve as useful examples of artificial concepts. A triangle always has three angles and three sides. A square always has four equal sides and four right angles. Mathematical formulas, like the equation for area (length × width), are artificial concepts defined by specific sets of characteristics that are always the same. Artificial concepts can enhance the understanding of a topic by building on one another. For example, before learning the concept of “area of a square” (and the formula to find it), you must understand what a square is. Once the concept of “area of a square” is understood, an understanding of area for other geometric shapes can be built upon the original understanding of area. The use of artificial concepts to define an idea is crucial to communicating with others and engaging in complex thought. According to Goldstone and Kersten (2003), concepts act as building blocks and can be connected in countless combinations to create complex thoughts.

A  schema  is a mental construct consisting of a cluster or collection of related concepts (Bartlett, 1932). There are many different types of schemata, and they all have one thing in common: schemata are a method of organizing information that allows the brain to work more efficiently. When a schema is activated, the brain makes immediate assumptions about the person or object being observed.

There are several types of schemata. A  role schema  makes assumptions about how individuals in certain roles will behave (Callero, 1994). For example, imagine you meet someone who introduces himself as a firefighter. When this happens, your brain automatically activates the “firefighter schema” and begins making assumptions that this person is brave, selfless, and community-oriented. Despite not knowing this person, already you have unknowingly made judgments about him. Schemata also help you fill in gaps in the information you receive from the world around you. While schemata allow for more efficient information processing, there can be problems with schemata, regardless of whether they are accurate: Perhaps this particular firefighter is not brave, he just works as a firefighter to pay the bills while studying to become a children’s librarian.

An  event schema , also known as a  cognitive script , is a set of behaviors that can feel like a routine. Think about what you do when you walk into an elevator ( Figure 7.4 ). First, the doors open and you wait to let exiting passengers leave the elevator car. Then, you step into the elevator and turn around to face the doors, looking for the correct button to push. You never face the back of the elevator, do you? And when you’re riding in a crowded elevator and you can’t face the front, it feels uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Interestingly, event schemata can vary widely among different cultures and countries. For example, while it is quite common for people to greet one another with a handshake in the United States, in Tibet, you greet someone by sticking your tongue out at them, and in Belize, you bump fists (Cairns Regional Council, n.d.)

A crowded elevator is shown. There are many people standing close to one another.

Because event schemata are automatic, they can be difficult to change. Imagine that you are driving home from work or school. This event schema involves getting in the car, shutting the door, and buckling your seatbelt before putting the key in the ignition. You might perform this script two or three times each day. As you drive home, you hear your phone’s ring tone. Typically, the event schema that occurs when you hear your phone ringing involves locating the phone and answering it or responding to your latest text message. So without thinking, you reach for your phone, which could be in your pocket, in your bag, or on the passenger seat of the car. This powerful event schema is informed by your pattern of behavior and the pleasurable stimulation that a phone call or text message gives your brain. Because it is a schema, it is extremely challenging for us to stop reaching for the phone, even though we know that we endanger our own lives and the lives of others while we do it (Neyfakh, 2013) ( Figure 7.5 ).

A person’s right hand is holding a cellular phone. The person is in the driver’s seat of an automobile while on the road.

Remember the elevator? It feels almost impossible to walk in and  not  face the door. Our powerful event schema dictates our behavior in the elevator, and it is no different with our phones. Current research suggests that it is the habit, or event schema, of checking our phones in many different situations that make refraining from checking them while driving especially difficult (Bayer & Campbell, 2012). Because texting and driving has become a dangerous epidemic in recent years, psychologists are looking at ways to help people interrupt the “phone schema” while driving. Event schemata like these are the reason why many habits are difficult to break once they have been acquired. As we continue to examine thinking, keep in mind how powerful the forces of concepts and schemata are to our understanding of the world.

  • Define language and demonstrate familiarity with the components of language
  • Understand the development of language
  • Explain the relationship between language and thinking

Language  is a communication system that involves using words and systematic rules to organize those words to transmit information from one individual to another. While language is a form of communication, not all communication is language. Many species communicate with one another through their postures, movements, odors, or vocalizations. This communication is crucial for species that need to interact and develop social relationships with their conspecifics. However, many people have asserted that it is language that makes humans unique among all of the animal species (Corballis & Suddendorf, 2007; Tomasello & Rakoczy, 2003). This section will focus on what distinguishes language as a special form of communication, how the use of language develops, and how language affects the way we think.

Components of Language

Language, be it spoken, signed, or written, has specific components: a lexicon and grammar.  Lexicon  refers to the words of a given language. Thus, lexicon is a language’s vocabulary.  Grammar  refers to the set of rules that are used to convey meaning through the use of the lexicon (Fernández & Cairns, 2011). For instance, English grammar dictates that most verbs receive an “-ed” at the end to indicate past tense.

Words are formed by combining the various phonemes that make up the language. A  phoneme  (e.g., the sounds “ah” vs. “eh”) is a basic sound unit of a given language, and different languages have different sets of phonemes. Phonemes are combined to form  morphemes , which are the smallest units of language that convey some type of meaning (e.g., “I” is both a phoneme and a morpheme). We use semantics and syntax to construct language. Semantics and syntax are part of a language’s grammar.  Semantics  refers to the process by which we derive meaning from morphemes and words.  Syntax  refers to the way words are organized into sentences (Chomsky, 1965; Fernández & Cairns, 2011).

We apply the rules of grammar to organize the lexicon in novel and creative ways, which allow us to communicate information about both concrete and abstract concepts. We can talk about our immediate and observable surroundings as well as the surface of unseen planets. We can share our innermost thoughts, our plans for the future, and debate the value of a college education. We can provide detailed instructions for cooking a meal, fixing a car, or building a fire. Through our use of words and language, we are able to form, organize, and express ideas, schema, and artificial concepts.

Language Development

Given the remarkable complexity of a language, one might expect that mastering a language would be an especially arduous task; indeed, for those of us trying to learn a second language as adults, this might seem to be true. However, young children master language very quickly with relative ease. B. F.  Skinner  (1957) proposed that language is learned through reinforcement. Noam  Chomsky  (1965) criticized this behaviorist approach, asserting instead that the mechanisms underlying language acquisition are biologically determined. The use of language develops in the absence of formal instruction and appears to follow a very similar pattern in children from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. It would seem, therefore, that we are born with a biological predisposition to acquire a language (Chomsky, 1965; Fernández & Cairns, 2011). Moreover, it appears that there is a critical period for language acquisition, such that this proficiency at acquiring language is maximal early in life; generally, as people age, the ease with which they acquire and master new languages diminishes (Johnson & Newport, 1989; Lenneberg, 1967; Singleton, 1995).

Children begin to learn about language from a very early age ( Table 7.1 ). In fact, it appears that this is occurring even before we are born. Newborns show a preference for their mother’s voice and appear to be able to discriminate between the language spoken by their mother and other languages. Babies are also attuned to the languages being used around them and show preferences for videos of faces that are moving in synchrony with the audio of spoken language versus videos that do not synchronize with the audio (Blossom & Morgan, 2006; Pickens, 1994; Spelke & Cortelyou, 1981).

DIG DEEPER: The Case of Genie

In the fall of 1970, a social worker in the Los Angeles area found a 13-year-old girl who was being raised in extremely neglectful and abusive conditions. The girl, who came to be known as Genie, had lived most of her life tied to a potty chair or confined to a crib in a small room that was kept closed with the curtains drawn. For a little over a decade, Genie had virtually no social interaction and no access to the outside world. As a result of these conditions, Genie was unable to stand up, chew solid food, or speak (Fromkin, Krashen, Curtiss, Rigler, & Rigler, 1974; Rymer, 1993). The police took Genie into protective custody.

Genie’s abilities improved dramatically following her removal from her abusive environment, and early on, it appeared she was acquiring language—much later than would be predicted by critical period hypotheses that had been posited at the time (Fromkin et al., 1974). Genie managed to amass an impressive vocabulary in a relatively short amount of time. However, she never developed a mastery of the grammatical aspects of language (Curtiss, 1981). Perhaps being deprived of the opportunity to learn language during a critical period impeded Genie’s ability to fully acquire and use language.

You may recall that each language has its own set of phonemes that are used to generate morphemes, words, and so on. Babies can discriminate among the sounds that make up a language (for example, they can tell the difference between the “s” in vision and the “ss” in fission); early on, they can differentiate between the sounds of all human languages, even those that do not occur in the languages that are used in their environments. However, by the time that they are about 1 year old, they can only discriminate among those phonemes that are used in the language or languages in their environments (Jensen, 2011; Werker & Lalonde, 1988; Werker & Tees, 1984).

After the first few months of life, babies enter what is known as the babbling stage, during which time they tend to produce single syllables that are repeated over and over. As time passes, more variations appear in the syllables that they produce. During this time, it is unlikely that the babies are trying to communicate; they are just as likely to babble when they are alone as when they are with their caregivers (Fernández & Cairns, 2011). Interestingly, babies who are raised in environments in which sign language is used will also begin to show babbling in the gestures of their hands during this stage (Petitto, Holowka, Sergio, Levy, & Ostry, 2004).

Generally, a child’s first word is uttered sometime between the ages of 1 year to 18 months, and for the next few months, the child will remain in the “one word” stage of language development. During this time, children know a number of words, but they only produce one-word utterances. The child’s early vocabulary is limited to familiar objects or events, often nouns. Although children in this stage only make one-word utterances, these words often carry larger meaning (Fernández & Cairns, 2011). So, for example, a child saying “cookie” could be identifying a cookie or asking for a cookie.

As a child’s lexicon grows, she begins to utter simple sentences and to acquire new vocabulary at a very rapid pace. In addition, children begin to demonstrate a clear understanding of the specific rules that apply to their language(s). Even the mistakes that children sometimes make provide evidence of just how much they understand about those rules. This is sometimes seen in the form of  overgeneralization . In this context, overgeneralization refers to an extension of a language rule to an exception to the rule. For example, in English, it is usually the case that an “s” is added to the end of a word to indicate plurality. For example, we speak of one dog versus two dogs. Young children will overgeneralize this rule to cases that are exceptions to the “add an s to the end of the word” rule and say things like “those two gooses” or “three mouses.” Clearly, the rules of the language are understood, even if the exceptions to the rules are still being learned (Moskowitz, 1978).

Language and Thought

When we speak one language, we agree that words are representations of ideas, people, places, and events. The given language that children learn is connected to their culture and surroundings. But can words themselves shape the way we think about things? Psychologists have long investigated the question of whether language shapes thoughts and actions, or whether our thoughts and beliefs shape our language. Two researchers, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf began this investigation in the 1940s. They wanted to understand how the language habits of a community encourage members of that community to interpret language in a particular manner (Sapir, 1941/1964). Sapir and Whorf proposed that language determines thought. For example, in some languages, there are many different words for love. However, in English, we use the word love for all types of love. Does this affect how we think about love depending on the language that we speak (Whorf, 1956)? Researchers have since identified this view as too absolute, pointing out a lack of empiricism behind what Sapir and Whorf proposed (Abler, 2013; Boroditsky, 2011; van Troyer, 1994). Today, psychologists continue to study and debate the relationship between language and thought.

  • 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 is 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 the 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.

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 a 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.

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 ( 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:

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 ( Figure 7.9 ). 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?”

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. 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 solve 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.

Figure a shows a book of matches, a box of thumbtacks, and a candle. Figure b shows the candle standing in the box that held the thumbtacks. A thumbtack attaches the box holding the candle to the wall.

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 .

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 ).

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.

  • Define intelligence
  • Explain the triarchic theory of intelligence
  • Identify the difference between intelligence theories
  • Explain emotional intelligence
  • Define creativity

Classifying Intelligence

What exactly is intelligence? The way that researchers have defined the concept of intelligence has been modified many times since the birth of psychology. British psychologist Charles Spearman believed intelligence consisted of one general factor, called  g , which could be measured and compared among individuals. Spearman focused on the commonalities among various intellectual abilities and de-emphasized what made each unique. Long before modern psychology developed, however, ancient philosophers, such as Aristotle, held a similar view (Cianciolo & Sternberg, 2004).

Other psychologists believe that instead of a single factor, intelligence is a collection of distinct abilities. In the 1940s, Raymond Cattell proposed a theory of intelligence that divided general intelligence into two components: crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence (Cattell, 1963). Crystallized intelligence  is characterized as acquired knowledge and the ability to retrieve it. When you learn, remember, and recall information, you are using crystallized intelligence. You use crystallized intelligence all the time in your coursework by demonstrating that you have mastered the information covered in the course.  Fluid intelligence  encompasses the ability to see complex relationships and solve problems. Navigating your way home after being detoured onto an unfamiliar route because of road construction would draw upon your fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence helps you tackle complex, abstract challenges in your daily life, whereas crystallized intelligence helps you overcome concrete, straightforward problems (Cattell, 1963).

Other theorists and psychologists believe that intelligence should be defined in more practical terms. For example, what types of behaviors help you get ahead in life? Which skills promote success? Think about this for a moment. Being able to recite all 45 presidents of the United States in order is an excellent party trick, but will knowing this make you a better person?

Robert Sternberg developed another theory of intelligence, which he titled the  triarchic theory of intelligence  because it sees intelligence as comprised of three parts (Sternberg, 1988): practical, creative, and analytical intelligence ( Figure 7.12 ).

Three boxes are arranged in a triangle. The top box contains “Analytical intelligence; academic problem solving and computation.” There is a line with arrows on both ends connecting this box to another box containing “Practical intelligence; street smarts and common sense.” Another line with arrows on both ends connects this box to another box containing “Creative intelligence; imaginative and innovative problem solving.” Another line with arrows on both ends connects this box to the first box described, completing the triangle.

Practical intelligence , as proposed by Sternberg, is sometimes compared to “street smarts.” Being practical means you find solutions that work in your everyday life by applying knowledge based on your experiences. This type of intelligence appears to be separate from the traditional understanding of IQ; individuals who score high in practical intelligence may or may not have comparable scores in creative and analytical intelligence (Sternberg, 1988).

Analytical intelligence is closely aligned with academic problem solving and computations. Sternberg says that analytical intelligence is demonstrated by an ability to analyze, evaluate, judge, compare, and contrast. When reading a classic novel for a literature class, for example, it is usually necessary to compare the motives of the main characters of the book or analyze the historical context of the story. In a science course such as anatomy, you must study the processes by which the body uses various minerals in different human systems. In developing an understanding of this topic, you are using analytical intelligence. When solving a challenging math problem, you would apply analytical intelligence to analyze different aspects of the problem and then solve it section by section.

Creative intelligence  is marked by inventing or imagining a solution to a problem or situation. Creativity in this realm can include finding a novel solution to an unexpected problem or producing a beautiful work of art or a well-developed short story. Imagine for a moment that you are camping in the woods with some friends and realize that you’ve forgotten your camp coffee pot. The person in your group who figures out a way to successfully brew coffee for everyone would be credited as having higher creative intelligence.

Multiple Intelligences Theory  was developed by Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist and former student of Erik Erikson. Gardner’s theory, which has been refined for more than 30 years, is a more recent development among theories of intelligence. In Gardner’s theory, each person possesses at least eight intelligences. Among these eight intelligences, a person typically excels in some and falters in others (Gardner, 1983).  Table 7.4  describes each type of intelligence.

Gardner’s theory is relatively new and needs additional research to better establish empirical support. At the same time, his ideas challenge the traditional idea of intelligence to include a wider variety of abilities, although it has been suggested that Gardner simply relabeled what other theorists called “cognitive styles” as “intelligences” (Morgan, 1996). Furthermore, developing traditional measures of Gardner’s intelligences is extremely difficult (Furnham, 2009; Gardner & Moran, 2006; Klein, 1997).

Gardner’s inter- and intrapersonal intelligences are often combined into a single type: emotional intelligence.  Emotional intelligence  encompasses the ability to understand the emotions of yourself and others, show empathy, understand social relationships and cues, and regulate your own emotions and respond in culturally appropriate ways (Parker, Saklofske, & Stough, 2009). People with high emotional intelligence typically have well-developed social skills. Some researchers, including Daniel Goleman, the author of  Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ , argue that emotional intelligence is a better predictor of success than traditional intelligence (Goleman, 1995). However, emotional intelligence has been widely debated, with researchers pointing out inconsistencies in how it is defined and described, as well as questioning results of studies on a subject that is difficult to measure and study empirically (Locke, 2005; Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2004)

The most comprehensive theory of intelligence to date is the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) theory of cognitive abilities (Schneider & McGrew, 2018). In this theory, abilities are related and arranged in a hierarchy with general abilities at the top, broad abilities in the middle, and narrow (specific) abilities at the bottom. The narrow abilities are the only ones that can be directly measured; however, they are integrated within the other abilities. At the general level is general intelligence. Next, the broad level consists of general abilities such as fluid reasoning, short-term memory, and processing speed. Finally, as the hierarchy continues, the narrow level includes specific forms of cognitive abilities. For example, short-term memory would further break down into memory span and working memory capacity.

Intelligence can also have different meanings and values in different cultures. If you live on a small island, where most people get their food by fishing from boats, it would be important to know how to fish and how to repair a boat. If you were an exceptional angler, your peers would probably consider you intelligent. If you were also skilled at repairing boats, your intelligence might be known across the whole island. Think about your own family’s culture. What values are important for Latinx families? Italian families? In Irish families, hospitality and telling an entertaining story are marks of the culture. If you are a skilled storyteller, other members of Irish culture are likely to consider you intelligent.

Some cultures place a high value on working together as a collective. In these cultures, the importance of the group supersedes the importance of individual achievement. When you visit such a culture, how well you relate to the values of that culture exemplifies your  cultural intelligence , sometimes referred to as cultural competence.

Creativity  is the ability to generate, create, or discover new ideas, solutions, and possibilities. Very creative people often have intense knowledge about something, work on it for years, look at novel solutions, seek out the advice and help of other experts, and take risks. Although creativity is often associated with the arts, it is actually a vital form of intelligence that drives people in many disciplines to discover something new. Creativity can be found in every area of life, from the way you decorate your residence to a new way of understanding how a cell works.

Creativity is often assessed as a function of one’s ability to engage in  divergent thinking . Divergent thinking can be described as thinking “outside the box;” it allows an individual to arrive at unique, multiple solutions to a given problem. In contrast,  convergent thinking describes the ability to provide a correct or well-established answer or solution to a problem (Cropley, 2006; Gilford, 1967)

  • Explain how intelligence tests are developed
  • Describe the history of the use of IQ tests
  • Describe the purposes and benefits of intelligence testing

While you’re likely familiar with the term “IQ” and associate it with the idea of intelligence, what does IQ really mean? IQ stands for  intelligence quotient  and describes a score earned on a test designed to measure intelligence. You’ve already learned that there are many ways psychologists describe intelligence (or more aptly, intelligences). Similarly, IQ tests—the tools designed to measure intelligence—have been the subject of debate throughout their development and use.

When might an IQ test be used? What do we learn from the results, and how might people use this information? While there are certainly many benefits to intelligence testing, it is important to also note the limitations and controversies surrounding these tests. For example, IQ tests have sometimes been used as arguments in support of insidious purposes, such as the eugenics movement (Severson, 2011). The infamous Supreme Court Case,  Buck v. Bell , legalized the forced sterilization of some people deemed “feeble-minded” through this type of testing, resulting in about 65,000 sterilizations ( Buck v. Bell , 274 U.S. 200; Ko, 2016). Today, only professionals trained in psychology can administer IQ tests, and the purchase of most tests requires an advanced degree in psychology. Other professionals in the field, such as social workers and psychiatrists, cannot administer IQ tests. In this section, we will explore what intelligence tests measure, how they are scored, and how they were developed.

Measuring Intelligence

It seems that the human understanding of intelligence is somewhat limited when we focus on traditional or academic-type intelligence. How then, can intelligence be measured? And when we measure intelligence, how do we ensure that we capture what we’re really trying to measure (in other words, that IQ tests function as valid measures of intelligence)? In the following paragraphs, we will explore the how intelligence tests were developed and the history of their use.

The IQ test has been synonymous with intelligence for over a century. In the late 1800s, Sir Francis Galton developed the first broad test of intelligence (Flanagan & Kaufman, 2004). Although he was not a psychologist, his contributions to the concepts of intelligence testing are still felt today (Gordon, 1995). Reliable intelligence testing (you may recall from earlier chapters that reliability refers to a test’s ability to produce consistent results) began in earnest during the early 1900s with a researcher named Alfred Binet ( Figure 7.13 ). Binet was asked by the French government to develop an intelligence test to use on children to determine which ones might have difficulty in school; it included many verbally based tasks. American researchers soon realized the value of such testing. Louis Terman, a Stanford professor, modified Binet’s work by standardizing the administration of the test and tested thousands of different-aged children to establish an average score for each age. As a result, the test was normed and standardized, which means that the test was administered consistently to a large enough representative sample of the population that the range of scores resulted in a bell curve (bell curves will be discussed later).  Standardization  means that the manner of administration, scoring, and interpretation of results is consistent.  Norming  involves giving a test to a large population so data can be collected comparing groups, such as age groups. The resulting data provide norms, or referential scores, by which to interpret future scores. Norms are not expectations of what a given group  should  know but a demonstration of what that group  does  know. Norming and standardizing the test ensures that new scores are reliable. This new version of the test was called the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale (Terman, 1916). Remarkably, an updated version of this test is still widely used today.

Photograph A shows a portrait of Alfred Binet. Photograph B shows six sketches of human faces. Above these faces is the label “Guide for Binet-Simon Scale. 223” The faces are arranged in three rows of two, and these rows are labeled “1, 2, and 3.” At the bottom it reads: “The psychological clinic is indebted for the loan of these cuts and those on p. 225 to the courtesy of Dr. Oliver P. Cornman, Associate Superintendent of Schools of Philadelphia, and Chairman of Committee on Backward Children Investigation. See Report of Committee, Dec. 31, 1910, appendix.”

In 1939, David Wechsler, a psychologist who spent part of his career working with World War I veterans, developed a new IQ test in the United States. Wechsler combined several subtests from other intelligence tests used between 1880 and World War I. These subtests tapped into a variety of verbal and nonverbal skills because Wechsler believed that intelligence encompassed “the global capacity of a person to act purposefully, to think rationally, and to deal effectively with his environment” (Wechsler, 1958, p. 7). He named the test the Wechsler-Bellevue Intelligence Scale (Wechsler, 1981). This combination of subtests became one of the most extensively used intelligence tests in the history of psychology. Although its name was later changed to the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) and has been revised several times, the aims of the test remain virtually unchanged since its inception (Boake, 2002). Today, there are three intelligence tests credited to Wechsler, the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-fourth edition (WAIS-IV), the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-V), and the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence—IV (WPPSI-IV) (Wechsler, 2012). These tests are used widely in schools and communities throughout the United States, and they are periodically normed and standardized as a means of recalibration. As a part of the recalibration process, the WISC-V was given to thousands of children across the country, and children taking the test today are compared with their same-age peers ( Figure 7.13 ).

The WISC-V is composed of 14 subtests, which comprise five indices, which then render an IQ score. The five indices are Verbal Comprehension, Visual Spatial, Fluid Reasoning, Working Memory, and Processing Speed. When the test is complete, individuals receive a score for each of the five indices and a Full Scale IQ score. The method of scoring reflects the understanding that intelligence is comprised of multiple abilities in several cognitive realms and focuses on the mental processes that the child used to arrive at his or her answers to each test item.

Interestingly, the periodic recalibrations have led to an interesting observation known as the Flynn effect. Named after James Flynn, who was among the first to describe this trend, the  Flynn effect  refers to the observation that each generation has a significantly higher IQ than the last. Flynn himself argues, however, that increased IQ scores do not necessarily mean that younger generations are more intelligent per se (Flynn, Shaughnessy, & Fulgham, 2012).

Ultimately, we are still left with the question of how valid intelligence tests are. Certainly, the most modern versions of these tests tap into more than verbal competencies, yet the specific skills that should be assessed in IQ testing, the degree to which any test can truly measure an individual’s intelligence, and the use of the results of IQ tests are still issues of debate (Gresham & Witt, 1997; Flynn, Shaughnessy, & Fulgham, 2012; Richardson, 2002; Schlinger, 2003).

The Bell Curve

The results of intelligence tests follow the bell curve, a graph in the general shape of a bell. When the bell curve is used in psychological testing, the graph demonstrates a normal distribution of a trait, in this case, intelligence, in the human population. Many human traits naturally follow the bell curve. For example, if you lined up all your female schoolmates according to height, it is likely that a large cluster of them would be the average height for an American woman: 5’4”–5’6”. This cluster would fall in the center of the bell curve, representing the average height for American women ( Figure 7.14 ). There would be fewer women who stand closer to 4’11”. The same would be true for women of above-average height: those who stand closer to 5’11”. The trick to finding a bell curve in nature is to use a large sample size. Without a large sample size, it is less likely that the bell curve will represent the wider population. A  representative sample  is a subset of the population that accurately represents the general population. If, for example, you measured the height of the women in your classroom only, you might not actually have a representative sample. Perhaps the women’s basketball team wanted to take this course together, and they are all in your class. Because basketball players tend to be taller than average, the women in your class may not be a good representative sample of the population of American women. But if your sample included all the women at your school, it is likely that their heights would form a natural bell curve.

A graph of a bell curve is labeled “Height of U.S. Women.” The x axis is labeled “Height” and the y axis is labeled “Frequency.” Between the heights of five feet tall and five feet and five inches tall, the frequency rises to a curved peak, then begins dropping off at the same rate until it hits five feet ten inches tall.

The same principles apply to intelligence test scores. Individuals earn a score called an intelligence quotient (IQ). Over the years, different types of IQ tests have evolved, but the way scores are interpreted remains the same. The average IQ score on an IQ test is 100. Standard deviations  describe how data are dispersed in a population and give context to large data sets. The bell curve uses the standard deviation to show how all scores are dispersed from the average score ( Figure 7.15 ). In modern IQ testing, one standard deviation is 15 points. So a score of 85 would be described as “one standard deviation below the mean.” How would you describe a score of 115 and a score of 70? Any IQ score that falls within one standard deviation above and below the mean (between 85 and 115) is considered average, and 68% of the population has IQ scores in this range. An IQ score of 130 or above is considered a superior level.

A graph of a bell curve is labeled “Intelligence Quotient Score.” The x axis is labeled “IQ,” and the y axis is labeled “Population.” Beginning at an IQ of 60, the population rises to a curved peak at an IQ of 100 and then drops off at the same rate ending near zero at an IQ of 140.

Only 2.2% of the population has an IQ score below 70 (American Psychological Association [APA], 2013). A score of 70 or below indicates significant cognitive delays. When these are combined with major deficits in adaptive functioning, a person is diagnosed with having an intellectual disability (American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 2013). Formerly known as mental retardation, the accepted term now is intellectual disability, and it has four subtypes: mild, moderate, severe, and profound ( Table 7.5 ).  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders  lists criteria for each subgroup (APA, 2013).

On the other end of the intelligence spectrum are those individuals whose IQs fall into the highest ranges. Consistent with the bell curve, about 2% of the population falls into this category. People are considered gifted if they have an IQ score of 130 or higher, or superior intelligence in a particular area. Long ago, popular belief suggested that people of high intelligence were maladjusted. This idea was disproven through a groundbreaking study of gifted children. In 1921, Lewis Terman began a longitudinal study of over 1500 children with IQs over 135 (Terman, 1925). His findings showed that these children became well-educated, successful adults who were, in fact, well-adjusted (Terman & Oden, 1947). Additionally, Terman’s study showed that the subjects were above average in physical build and attractiveness, dispelling an earlier popular notion that highly intelligent people were “weaklings.” Some people with very high IQs elect to join Mensa, an organization dedicated to identifying, researching, and fostering intelligence. Members must have an IQ score in the top 2% of the population, and they may be required to pass other exams in their application to join the group.

DIG DEEPER: What’s in a Name? 

In the past, individuals with IQ scores below 70 and significant adaptive and social functioning delays were diagnosed with mental retardation. When this diagnosis was first named, the title held no social stigma. In time, however, the degrading word “retard” sprang from this diagnostic term. “Retard” was frequently used as a taunt, especially among young people, until the words “mentally retarded” and “retard” became an insult. As such, the DSM-5 now labels this diagnosis as “intellectual disability.” Many states once had a Department of Mental Retardation to serve those diagnosed with such cognitive delays, but most have changed their name to the Department of Developmental Disabilities or something similar in language.

Erin Johnson’s younger brother Matthew has Down syndrome. She wrote this piece about what her brother taught her about the meaning of intelligence:

His whole life, learning has been hard. Entirely possible – just different. He has always excelled with technology – typing his thoughts was more effective than writing them or speaking them. Nothing says “leave me alone” quite like a text that reads, “Do Not Call Me Right Now.” He is fully capable of reading books up to about a third-grade level, but he didn’t love it and used to always ask others to read to him. That all changed when his nephew came along, because he willingly reads to him, and it is the most heart-swelling, smile-inducing experience I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

When it comes down to it, Matt can learn. He does learn. It just takes longer, and he has to work harder for it, which if we’re being honest, is not a lot of fun. He is extremely gifted in learning things he takes an interest in, and those things often seem a bit “strange” to others. But no matter. It just proves my point – he  can  learn. That does not mean he will learn at the same pace, or even to the same level. It also, unfortunately, does not mean he will be allotted the same opportunities to learn as many others.

Here’s the scoop. We are all wired with innate abilities to retain and apply our learning and natural curiosities and passions that fuel our desire to learn. But our abilities and curiosities may not be the same.

The world doesn’t work this way though, especially not for my brother and his counterparts. Have him read aloud a book about skunks, and you may not get a whole lot from him. But have him tell you about skunks straight out of his memory, and hold onto your hats. He can hack the school’s iPad system, but he can’t tell you how he did it. He can write out every direction for a drive to our grandparents’ home in Florida, but he can’t drive.

Society is quick to deem him disabled and use demeaning language like the r-word to describe him, but in reality, we haven’t necessarily given him opportunities to showcase the learning he can do. In my case, I can escape the need to memorize how to change the oil in my car without anyone assuming I can’t do it, or calling me names when they find out I can’t. But Matthew can’t get through a day at his job without someone assuming he needs help. He is bright. Brighter than most anyone would assume. Maybe we need to redefine what is smart.

My brother doesn’t fit in the narrow schema of intelligence that is accepted in our society. But intelligence is far more than being able to solve 525 x 62 or properly introduce yourself to another. Why can’t we assume the intelligence of someone who can recite all of a character’s lines in a movie or remember my birthday a year after I told him/her a single time? Why is it we allow a person’s diagnosis or appearance to make us not just wonder if, but entirely doubt that they are capable? Maybe we need to cut away the sides of the box we have created for people so everyone can fit.

My brother can learn. It may not be what you know. It may be knowledge you would deem unimportant. It may not follow a traditional learning trajectory. But the fact remains – he can learn. Everyone can learn. And even though it is harder for him and harder for others still, he is not a “retard.” Nobody is.

When you use the r-word, you are insinuating that an individual, whether someone with a disability or not, is unintelligent, foolish, and purposeless. This in turn tells a person with a disability that they too are unintelligent, foolish, and purposeless. Because the word was historically used to describe individuals with disabilities and twisted from its original meaning to fit a cruel new context, it is forevermore associated with people like my brother. No matter how a person looks or learns or behaves, the r-word is never a fitting term. It’s time we waved it goodbye.

Why Measure Intelligence?

The value of IQ testing is most evident in educational or clinical settings. Children who seem to be experiencing learning difficulties or severe behavioral problems can be tested to ascertain whether the child’s difficulties can be partly attributed to an IQ score that is significantly different from the mean for her age group. Without IQ testing—or another measure of intelligence—children and adults needing extra support might not be identified effectively. In addition, IQ testing is used in courts to determine whether a defendant has special or extenuating circumstances that preclude him from participating in some way in a trial. People also use IQ testing results to seek disability benefits from the Social Security Administration.

  • Describe how genetics and environment affect intelligence
  • Explain the relationship between IQ scores and socioeconomic status
  • Describe the difference between a learning disability and a developmental disorder

High Intelligence: Nature or Nurture?

Where does high intelligence come from? Some researchers believe that intelligence is a trait inherited from a person’s parents. Scientists who research this topic typically use twin studies to determine the  heritability  of intelligence. The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart is one of the most well-known twin studies. In this investigation, researchers found that identical twins raised together and identical twins raised apart exhibit a higher correlation between their IQ scores than siblings or fraternal twins raised together (Bouchard, Lykken, McGue, Segal, & Tellegen, 1990). The findings from this study reveal a genetic component to intelligence ( Figure 7.15 ). At the same time, other psychologists believe that intelligence is shaped by a child’s developmental environment. If parents were to provide their children with intellectual stimuli from before they are born, it is likely that they would absorb the benefits of that stimulation, and it would be reflected in intelligence levels.

A chart shows correlations of IQs for people of varying relationships. The bottom is labeled “Percent IQ Correlation” and the left side is labeled “Relationship.” The percent IQ Correlation for relationships where no genes are shared, including adoptive parent-child pairs, similarly aged unrelated children raised together, and adoptive siblings are around 21 percent, 30 percent, and 32 percent, respectively. The percent IQ Correlation for relationships where 25 percent of genes are shared, as in half-siblings, is around 33 percent. The percent IQ Correlation for relationships where 50 percent of genes are shared, including parent-children pairs, and fraternal twins raised together, are roughly 44 percent and 62 percent, respectively. A relationship where 100 percent of genes are shared, as in identical twins raised apart, results in a nearly 80 percent IQ correlation.

The reality is that aspects of each idea are probably correct. In fact, one study suggests that although genetics seem to be in control of the level of intelligence, the environmental influences provide both stability and change to trigger manifestation of cognitive abilities (Bartels, Rietveld, Van Baal, & Boomsma, 2002). Certainly, there are behaviors that support the development of intelligence, but the genetic component of high intelligence should not be ignored. As with all heritable traits, however, it is not always possible to isolate how and when high intelligence is passed on to the next generation.

Range of Reaction  is the theory that each person responds to the environment in a unique way based on his or her genetic makeup. According to this idea, your genetic potential is a fixed quantity, but whether you reach your full intellectual potential is dependent upon the environmental stimulation you experience, especially in childhood. Think about this scenario: A couple adopts a child who has average genetic intellectual potential. They raise her in an extremely stimulating environment. What will happen to the couple’s new daughter? It is likely that the stimulating environment will improve her intellectual outcomes over the course of her life. But what happens if this experiment is reversed? If a child with an extremely strong genetic background is placed in an environment that does not stimulate him: What happens? Interestingly, according to a longitudinal study of highly gifted individuals, it was found that “the two extremes of optimal and pathological experience are both represented disproportionately in the backgrounds of creative individuals”; however, those who experienced supportive family environments were more likely to report being happy (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1993, p. 187).

Another challenge to determining the origins of high intelligence is the confounding nature of our human social structures. It is troubling to note that some ethnic groups perform better on IQ tests than others—and it is likely that the results do not have much to do with the quality of each ethnic group’s intellect. The same is true for socioeconomic status. Children who live in poverty experience more pervasive, daily stress than children who do not worry about the basic needs of safety, shelter, and food. These worries can negatively affect how the brain functions and develops, causing a dip in IQ scores. Mark Kishiyama and his colleagues determined that children living in poverty demonstrated reduced prefrontal brain functioning comparable to children with damage to the lateral prefrontal cortex (Kishyama, Boyce, Jimenez, Perry, & Knight, 2009).

The debate around the foundations and influences on intelligence exploded in 1969 when an educational psychologist named Arthur Jensen published the article “How Much Can We Boost I.Q. and Achievement” in the Harvard Educational Review . Jensen had administered IQ tests to diverse groups of students, and his results led him to the conclusion that IQ is determined by genetics. He also posited that intelligence was made up of two types of abilities: Level I and Level II. In his theory, Level I is responsible for rote memorization, whereas Level II is responsible for conceptual and analytical abilities. According to his findings, Level I remained consistent among the human race. Level II, however, exhibited differences among ethnic groups (Modgil & Routledge, 1987). Jensen’s most controversial conclusion was that Level II intelligence is prevalent among Asians, then Caucasians, then African Americans. Robert Williams was among those who called out racial bias in Jensen’s results (Williams, 1970).

Obviously, Jensen’s interpretation of his own data caused an intense response in a nation that continued to grapple with the effects of racism (Fox, 2012). However, Jensen’s ideas were not solitary or unique; rather, they represented one of many examples of psychologists asserting racial differences in IQ and cognitive ability. In fact, Rushton and Jensen (2005) reviewed three decades worth of research on the relationship between race and cognitive ability. Jensen’s belief in the inherited nature of intelligence and the validity of the IQ test to be the truest measure of intelligence are at the core of his conclusions. If, however, you believe that intelligence is more than Levels I and II, or that IQ tests do not control for socioeconomic and cultural differences among people, then perhaps you can dismiss Jensen’s conclusions as a single window that looks out on the complicated and varied landscape of human intelligence.

In a related story, parents of African American students filed a case against the State of California in 1979, because they believed that the testing method used to identify students with learning disabilities was culturally unfair as the tests were normed and standardized using white children ( Larry P. v. Riles ). The testing method used by the state disproportionately identified African American children as mentally retarded. This resulted in many students being incorrectly classified as “mentally retarded.”

What are Learning Disabilities?

Learning disabilities are cognitive disorders that affect different areas of cognition, particularly language or reading. It should be pointed out that learning disabilities are not the same thing as intellectual disabilities. Learning disabilities are considered specific neurological impairments rather than global intellectual or developmental disabilities. A person with a language disability has difficulty understanding or using spoken language, whereas someone with a reading disability, such as dyslexia, has difficulty processing what he or she is reading.

Often, learning disabilities are not recognized until a child reaches school age. One confounding aspect of learning disabilities is that they most often affect children with average to above-average intelligence. In other words, the disability is specific to a particular area and not a measure of overall intellectual ability. At the same time, learning disabilities tend to exhibit comorbidity with other disorders, like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Anywhere between 30–70% of individuals with diagnosed cases of ADHD also have some sort of learning disability (Riccio, Gonzales, & Hynd, 1994). Let’s take a look at three examples of common learning disabilities: dysgraphia, dyslexia, and dyscalculia.

Children with  dysgraphia  have a learning disability that results in a struggle to write legibly. The physical task of writing with a pen and paper is extremely challenging for the person. These children often have extreme difficulty putting their thoughts down on paper (Smits-Engelsman & Van Galen, 1997). This difficulty is inconsistent with a person’s IQ. That is, based on the child’s IQ and/or abilities in other areas, a child with dysgraphia should be able to write, but can’t. Children with dysgraphia may also have problems with spatial abilities.

Students with dysgraphia need academic accommodations to help them succeed in school. These accommodations can provide students with alternative assessment opportunities to demonstrate what they know (Barton, 2003). For example, a student with dysgraphia might be permitted to take an oral exam rather than a traditional paper-and-pencil test. Treatment is usually provided by an occupational therapist, although there is some question as to how effective such treatment is (Zwicker, 2005).

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability in children. An individual with  dyslexia  exhibits an inability to correctly process letters. The neurological mechanism for sound processing does not work properly in someone with dyslexia. As a result, dyslexic children may not understand sound-letter correspondence. A child with dyslexia may mix up letters within words and sentences—letter reversals, such as those shown in  Figure 7.17 , are a hallmark of this learning disability—or skip whole words while reading. A dyslexic child may have difficulty spelling words correctly while writing. Because of the disordered way that the brain processes letters and sounds, learning to read is a frustrating experience. Some dyslexic individuals cope by memorizing the shapes of most words, but they never actually learn to read (Berninger, 2008).

Two columns and five rows all containing the word “teapot” are shown. “Teapot” is written ten times with the letters jumbled, sometimes appearing backwards and upside down.

Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia  is difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic. This learning disability is often first evident when children exhibit difficulty discerning how many objects are in a small group without counting them. Other symptoms may include struggling to memorize math facts, organize numbers, or fully differentiate between numerals, math symbols, and written numbers (such as “3” and “three”).

Additional Supplemental Resources

  • Use Google’s QuickDraw web app on your phone to quickly draw 5 things for Google’s artificially intelligent neural net. When you are done, the app will show you what it thought each of the drawings was. How does this relate to the psychological idea of concepts, prototypes, and schemas? Check out here.  Works best in Chrome if used in a web browser
  • This article lists information about a variety of different topics relating to speech development, including how speech develops and what research is currently being done regarding speech development.
  • The Human intelligence site includes biographical profiles of people who have influenced the development of intelligence theory and testing, in-depth articles exploring current controversies related to human intelligence, and resources for teachers.

Preview the document

  • In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper from Columbia and Stanford University published a study about the paradox of choice.  This is the original journal article.
  • Mensa , the high IQ society, provides a forum for intellectual exchange among its members. There are members in more than 100 countries around the world.  Anyone with an IQ in the top 2% of the population can join.
  • This test developed in the 1950s is used to refer to some kinds of behavioral tests for the presence of mind, or thought, or intelligence in putatively minded entities such as machines.
  • Your central “Hub” of information and products created for the network of Parent Centers serving families of children with disabilities.
  • How have average IQ levels changed over time? Hear James Flynn discuss the “Flynn Effect” in this Ted Talk. Closed captioning available.
  • We all want customized experiences and products — but when faced with 700 options, consumers freeze up. With fascinating new research, Sheena Iyengar demonstrates how businesses (and others) can improve the experience of choosing. This is the same researcher that is featured in your midterm exam.
  • What does an IQ Score distribution look like?  Where do most people fall on an IQ Score distribution?  Find out more in this video. Closed captioning available.
  • How do we solve problems?  How can data help us to do this?  Follow Amy Webb’s story of how she used algorithms to help her find her way to true love. Closed captioning available.
  • In this Ted-Ed video, explore some of the ways in which animals communicate, and determine whether or not this communication qualifies as language.  A variety of discussion and assessment questions are included with the video (free registration is required to access the questions). Closed captioning available.
  • Watch this Ted-Ed video to learn more about the benefits of speaking multiple languages, including how bilingualism helps the brain to process information, strengthens the brain, and keeps the speaker more engaged in their world.  A variety of discussion and assessment questions are included with the video (free registration is required to access the questions). Closed captioning available.
  • This video is on how your mind can amaze and betray you includes information on topics such as concepts, prototypes, problem-solving and mistakes in thinking. Closed captioning available.
  • This video on language includes information on topics such as the development of language, language theories, and brain areas involved in language, as well as language disorders. Closed captioning available.
  • This video on the controversy of intelligence includes information on topics such as theories of intelligence, emotional intelligence, and measuring intelligence. Closed captioning available.
  • This video on the brains vs. bias includes information on topics such as intelligence testing, testing bias, and stereotype threat. Closed captioning available.

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Introduction to Psychology Copyright © 2020 by Julie Lazzara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Unit 2: Creativity and Language Learning

Activity 3: Problem Solving

Part a: group discussion, group discussion.

Work in groups and discuss your answers to the following questions.

Part B: Read the Article

Read the article.

Skim the text below and find the benefits of using creativity in problem solving.

How to become a creative problem solver

by Louise Cunnah posted in  Quick Tips

unit 3 lesson 7 thinking and problem solving

Problem solving and creative thinking; these are two great skills to possess in various areas of your life, from education to the workplace, and ones that work in perfect harmony with each other. No matter the task at hand, becoming a creative problem solver is something we should all strive to achieve as it can help to give us fresh perspectives when troubleshooting problems that, at first glance, appear to be unsolvable.

Though ‘creativity’ is a quality that’s most commonly associated with art, design and writing, it is a highly flexible skill that can be applied to countless tasks – making it one of the most important to have under our belts. In fact, when it comes to solving problems, creative thinking becomes incredibly useful. This is because not every problem is the same, and they can’t all be solved in the same way. By utilizing creativity in problem solving, you can devise innovative solutions that might be just the ticket, but others haven’t thought to try.

Additionally, if you can’t crack the riddle with conventional methods, Creative Problem Solving (CPS) will stop you from giving up at the first hurdle. This makes you far more likely to achieve your personal and business goals.

But don’t worry if you don’t consider yourself to be a creative thinker; everyone has the power to be creative. It’s all about knowing the right tools and techniques to help get you there. So, what exactly is a Creative Problem Solver and how can you become one?

What is Creative Problem Solving?

Creative Problem Solving is a term that has been around for many years, initially being coined by Alex Faikney Osbourne in the 1940s (who is also responsible for popularizing ‘ brainstorming ’). It was developed with the help of Sid Parnes in the 1950s, becoming the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving process called the CPS Learner’s Model.

According to the  Creative Education Foundation  (which was founded by Osbourne), CPS begins with the assumption that everyone is creative in some way, and that creativity can be learned or developed further. The CPS Model outlines that the process of Creative Problem Solving should incorporate the following steps:

  • Clarify: Identify the goal, gather data to understand the challenges you may encounter when achieving this goal, and create “challenge questions” that invite solutions (such as “is there enough time to complete the necessary actions?”).
  • Ideate: Generate ideas that answer the challenge questions you identified.
  • Develop: Turn your ideas into solutions by evaluating and strengthening them. You can then choose the solutions that best “fit” the goal and its challenges.
  • Implement: Formulate a plan by identifying resources and actions that will support the implementation of your selected solutions.

Although Creative Problem Solving isn’t new, many businesses and organizations are now realizing the importance of creativity in problem solving.  As Adobe has pointed out , the US Department of Education, World Economic Forum, and Bloomberg have all indicated that the jobs of the future will require creative problem-solving skills. In addition to this, 90% of surveyed educators said that it should be implemented across all curricula in education.

With all that in mind, here are just some of the techniques you can utilize to become a creative problem solver:

Mind Mapping

Mind Maps, by their very nature, are creative. Though they’re also an effective tool for boosting memory and recall due to their visual nature (often incorporating a range of shapes, colors and imagery), their flowing layout and use of keywords and short phrases also encourage our brains to make associations between ideas, thus enabling us to think more creatively.

With this in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that Mind Mapping also lends itself to being a great problem-solving technique. Solving a problem can be stressful and overwhelming when you first attempt to tackle it, which can make it harder to generate potential solutions. Fortunately, using Mind Maps in your problem solving can help you to organize your thoughts, as well as stimulate your brain to devise more creative ideas – which is essential for every stage of the CPS Model.

The Six Thinking Hats

This problem-solving technique requires you to move beyond your comfort zone and consider a problem from a range of different perspectives by essentially wearing different thinking hats. Humans are creatures of habit; if someone is an emotional thinker, they will have a tendency to approach every problem with this mindset, resulting in similar conclusions being drawn each time. Whether you use  the Six Thinking Hats technique  on your own or in a group, it forces you to get a more rounded view of the problem at hand, resulting in more creative problem solving.

Each of the six hats is a different color to signify a different way of thinking. When someone is wearing the White Hat, for example, they need to focus on the available facts and figures, using this to analyze past trends and fill in gaps in their knowledge. When they switch to the Red Hat, they need to consider how people will react emotionally. Wearers of The Blue Hat will focus on the decision’s possible negative outcomes, while wearers of the Yellow Hat are more optimistic. When wearing the Green Hat, this is the time to use tools such as Mind Mapping to brainstorm and generate more creative solutions. Finally, the wearer of the Blue Hat is the person that sets objectives, defines the problem, and draws conclusions from the meeting; think of them as ‘the chairman’, if you will.

Focused daydreaming

We all know that we don’t get our best ideas when we’re sitting at a desk, having stared at the same notebook for the past 20 minutes while willing ourselves to think of something, anything creative to jot down. Instead, inspiration tends to strike later, and when we least expect it. More often or not, this happens when we’re daydreaming while we’re doing something else – such as listening to music on the train home from work or relaxing in the bath.

But before you put your computer into sleep mode and head off for a walk, it’s important to know that daydreaming is most beneficial when it’s focused – especially when it comes to solving a specific problem. So, before you chuck your coat on, make sure you gather as much information as you can about the problem beforehand, so you can generate as many creative solutions as possible (after all, knowledge is power), and define what exactly it is that you want to achieve. Then you can let your wandering mind do the creative thinking.

Reversing the problem

One thing that sets Creative Problem Solvers apart from others is their ability to utilize different techniques to tackle a problem from various angles. Turning a problem on its head by looking at it in reverse can be highly useful (whether this is done alone or with a group). It encourages you to discover new issues that you may not have considered when using conventional brainstorming methods, resulting in more innovative solutions being generated.

So, how do you conduct Reverse Brainstorming correctly? It’s really as simple as it sounds. Take a challenge, such as “how do we acquire more customers?” and flip it so that it becomes “how do we lose customers?”. This is something that you may never have considered before, which can help you be more innovative in your thinking. By looking at a problem from various angles, you can ensure all bases are covered.

Incubating ideas

As we’ve already explained, our best sparks of inspiration come to us when our minds wander; often when we’re waiting for the kettle or boil or having our morning shower. Another way you can take advantage of the creative powers of our wandering, distracted mind is by taking regular breaks, thus allowing our ideas time to ‘incubate’ and develop further.

Like with most tasks, if we force ourselves to keep working without a break, we will eventually ‘burn out’ and fail to be productive. However, research into incubating ideas has found that the best way to utilize breaks to generate creative ideas and innovative solutions to problems is by doing another task that doesn’t require a lot of concentration – for example, going for a walk or doing the dishes. So, spend some time problem solving, take that incubation break, then come back to the problem with that fresh burst of inspiration you needed.

Part C: Definitions

Definitions, part d: read for details.

Read the article from Part B again and answer the following questions in your group.

Each question has a sample answer that will be revealed when you click/tap on the  Check  button and then  Show Solution .

Part E: Critical Thinking

Critical thinking.

Cartoon figure of 6 lightbulbs hanging from threads. Third one is yellow.

To brainstorm solutions, use the following techniques:

Step 1- Divergent Thinking

Title: Divergent thinking. 1- Image of one yellow square (Text: start with a prompt) 2- Image yellow square with arrows pointing out to 5 green pentagons arranged in a semi circle around the shape.

When producing ideas:

  • Strive for quantity (i.e., generate as many ideas as possible)
  • Defer judgement (do not evaluate their effectiveness at this point)
  • Build off others’ ideas
  • Freewheel (at this stage, it is okay to produce wild ideas!)

Step 2- Convergent Thinking

Title: Convergent thinking. 1- Image of 5 blue circle forming a semi circle (text: start with information). 2- Image of 5 blue circles with arrows from each pointing to a green pentagon in the centre. (text: converge on a solution)

Evaluating the effectiveness of your ideas:

  • Rate your ideas
  • Cluster your ideas (i.e., put them into different categories)
  • Tag your favourites

In your groups, discuss the following questions using the Divergent and Convergent Thinking methods.

For your convenience, you can download an MS Word version of the activities to work on your device or print and fill by hand.

   Download Activity Template

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7.3: Problem-Solving

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  • Page ID 82000

  • Kelvin Seifert & Rosemary Sutton
  • University of Manitoba & Cleveland State University via Global Text Project

Somewhat less open-ended than creative thinking is problem solving , the analysis and solution of tasks or situations that are complex or ambiguous and that pose difficulties or obstacles of some kind (Mayer & Wittrock, 2006). Problem solving is needed, for example, when a physician analyzes a chest X-ray: a photograph of the chest is far from clear and requires skill, experience, and resourcefulness to decide which foggy-looking blobs to ignore, and which to interpret as real physical structures (and therefore real medical concerns). Problem solving is also needed when a grocery store manager has to decide how to improve the sales of a product: should she put it on sale at a lower price, or increase publicity for it, or both? Will these actions actually increase sales enough to pay for their costs?

Problem solving in the classroom

Problem solving happens in classrooms when teachers present tasks or challenges that are deliberately complex and for which finding a solution is not straightforward or obvious. The responses of students to such problems, as well as the strategies for assisting them, show the key features of problem solving. Consider this example, and students' responses to it. We have numbered and named the paragraphs to make it easier to comment about them individually:

Scene #1: a problem to be solved

A teacher gave these instructions: "can you connect all of the dots below using only four straight lines" she drew the following display on the chalkboard:.

image

The problem itself and the procedure for solving it seemed very clear: simply experiment with different arrangements of four lines. But two volunteers tried doing it at the board, but were unsuccessful. Several others worked at it at their seats, but also without success.

Scene #2: coaxing students to re-frame the problem

When no one seemed to be getting it, the teacher asked, "Think about how you've set up the problem in your mind— about what you believe the problem is about. For instance, have you made any assumptions about how long the lines ought to be? Don't stay stuck on one approach if it's not working!"

Scene #3: Alicia abandons a fixed response

After the teacher said this, Alicia indeed continued to think about how she saw the problem. "The lines need to be no longer than the distance across the square," she said to herself. So she tried several more solutions, but none of them worked either.

The teacher walked by Alicia's desk and saw what Alicia was doing. She repeated her earlier comment: "Have you assumed anything about how long the lines ought to be?" Alicia stared at the teacher blankly, but then smiled and said, "Hmm! You didn't actually say that the lines could be no longer than the matrix! Why not make them longer?" Soshe experimented again using oversized lines and soon discovered a solution:

Trick is to draw lines outside the 3 by 3 array. Two perpendicular lines at right angles on bottom and left side going from vertex to about 4 dots high diagonal connecting them and then line at 45 degrees from vertex

Scene #4: Willem's and Rachel's alternative strategies

Meanwhile, Willem worked on the problem. As it happened, Willem loved puzzles of all kinds, and had ample experience with them. He had not, however, seen this particular problem. "It must be a trick," he said to himself, because he knew from experience that problems posed in this way often were not what they first appeared to be. He mused to himself: "Think outside the box, they always tell you..." And that was just the hint he needed: he drew lines outside the box by making them longer than the matrix and soon came up with this solution:

Same as in previous but not oriented on right side, mirror image of previous solution

When Rachel went to work, she took one look at the problem and knew the answer immediately: she had seen this problem before, though she could not remember where. She had also seen other drawing -related puzzles, and knew that their solution always depended on making the lines longer, shorter, or differently angled than first expected. After staring at the dots briefly, she drew a solution faster than Alicia or even Willem. Her solution looked exactly like Willem's.

This story illustrates two common features of problem solving: the effect of degree of structure or constraint on problem solving, and the effect of mental obstacles to solving problems. The next sections discuss each of these features, and then looks at common techniques for solving problems.

The effect of constraints: well-structured versus ill-structured problems

Problems vary in how much information they provide for solving a problem, as well as in how many rules or procedures are needed for a solution. A well-structured problem provides much of the information needed and can in principle be solved using relatively few clearly understood rules. Classic examples are the word problems often taught in math lessons or classes: everything you need to know is contained within the stated problem and the solution procedures are relatively clear and precise. An ill-structured problem has the converse qualities: the information is not necessarily within the problem, solution procedures are potentially quite numerous, and a multiple solutions are likely (Voss, 2006). Extreme examples are problems like "How can the world achieve lasting peace?" or "How can teachers insure that students learn?"

By these definitions, the nine-dot problem is relatively well-structured— though not completely. Most of the information needed for a solution is provided in Scene #1 : there are nine dots shown and instructions given to draw four lines. But not all necessary information was given: students needed to consider lines that were longer than implied in the original statement of the problem. Students had to "think outside the box", as Willem said— in this case, literally.

When a problem is well-structured, so are its solution procedures likely to be as well. A well-defined procedure for solving a particular kind of problem is often called an algorithm ; examples are the procedures for multiplying or dividing two numbers or the instructions for using a computer (Leiserson, et al., 2001). Algorithms are only effective when a problem is very well-structured and there is no question about whether the algorithm is an appropriate choice for the problem. In that situation it pretty much guarantees a correct solution. They do not work well, however, with ill-structured problems, where they are ambiguities and questions about how to proceed or even about precisely what the problem is about. In those cases it is more effective to use heuristics , which are general strategies— "rules of thumb", so to speak— that do not always work, but often do, or that provide at least partial solutions. When beginning research for a term paper, for example, a useful heuristic is to scan the library catalogue for titles that look relevant. There is no guarantee that this strategy will yield the books most needed for the paper, but the strategy works enough of the time to make it worth trying.

In the nine-dot problem, most students began in Scene #1 with a simple algorithm that can be stated like this: "Draw one line, then draw another, and another, and another". Unfortunately this simple procedure did not produce a solution, so they had to find other strategies for a solution. Three alternatives are described in Scenes #3 (for Alicia) and 4 (for Willem and Rachel). Of these, Willem's response resembled a heuristic the most: he knew from experience that a good general strategy that often worked for such problems was to suspect a deception or trick in how the problem was originally stated. So he set out to question what the teacher had meant by the word line, and came up with an acceptable solution as a result.

Common obstacles to solving problems

The example also illustrates two common problems that sometimes happen during problem solving. One of these is functional fixedness : a tendency to regard the functions of objects and ideas as fixed (German & Barrett, 2005). Over time, we get so used to one particular purpose for an object that we overlook other uses. We may think of a dictionary, for example, as necessarily something to verify spellings and definitions, but it also can function as a gift, a doorstop, or a footstool. For students working on the nine-dot matrix described in the last section, the notion of "drawing" a line was also initially fixed; they assumed it to be connecting dots but not extending lines beyond the dots. Functional fixedness sometimes is also called response set , the tendency for a person to frame or think about each problem in a series in the same way as the previous problem, even when doing so is not appropriate to later problems. In the example of the nine-dot matrix described above, students often tried one solution after another, but each solution was constrained by a set response not to extend any line beyond the matrix.

Functional fixedness and the response set are obstacles in problem representation , the way that a person understands and organizes information provided in a problem. If information is misunderstood or used inappropriately, then mistakes are likely— if indeed the problem can be solved at all. With the nine-dot matrix problem, for example, construing the instruction to draw four lines as meaning "draw four lines entirely within the matrix" means that the problem simply could not be solved. For another, consider this problem: "The number of water lilies on a lake doubles each day. Each water lily covers exactly one square foot. If it takes 100 days for the lilies to cover the lake exactly, how many days does it take for the lilies to cover exactly half of the lake?" If you think that the size of the lilies affects the solution to this problem, you have not represented the problem correctly. Information about lily size is not relevant to the solution, and only serves to distract from the truly crucial information, the fact that the lilies double their coverage each day. (The answer, incidentally, is that the lake is half covered in 99 days; can you think why?)

Strategies to assist problem solving

Just as there are cognitive obstacles to problem solving, there are also general strategies that help the process be successful, regardless of the specific content of a problem (Thagard, 2005). One helpful strategy is problem analysis — identifying the parts of the problem and working on each part separately. Analysis is especially useful when a problem is ill-structured. Consider this problem, for example: "Devise a plan to improve bicycle transportation in the city." Solving this problem is easier if you identify its parts or component subproblems, such as (1) installing bicycle lanes on busy streets, (2) educating cyclists and motorists to ride safely, (3) fixing potholes on streets used by cyclists, and (4) revising traffic laws that interfere with cycling. Each separate subproblem is more manageable than the original, general problem. The solution of each subproblem contributes the solution of the whole, though of course is not equivalent to a whole solution.

Another helpful strategy is working backward from a final solution to the originally stated problem. This approach is especially helpful when a problem is well-structured but also has elements that are distracting or misleading when approached in a forward, normal direction. The water lily problem described above is a good example: starting with the day when all the lake is covered (Day 100), ask what day would it therefore be half covered (by the terms of the problem, it would have to be the day before, or Day 99). Working backward in this case encourages reframing the extra information in the problem (i. e. the size of each water lily) as merely distracting, not as crucial to a solution.

A third helpful strategy is analogical thinking — using knowledge or experiences with similar features or structures to help solve the problem at hand (Bassok, 2003). In devising a plan to improve bicycling in the city, for example, an analogy of cars with bicycles is helpful in thinking of solutions: improving conditions for both vehicles requires many of the same measures (improving the roadways, educating drivers). Even solving simpler, more basic problems is helped by considering analogies. A first grade student can partially decode unfamiliar printed words by analogy to words he or she has learned already. If the child cannot yet read the word screen , for example, he can note that part of this word looks similar to words he may already know, such as seen or green , and from this observation derive a clue about how to read the word screen. Teachers can assist this process, as you might expect, by suggesting reasonable, helpful analogies for students to consider.

IMAGES

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

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COMMENTS

  1. Pyschology B: Thinking and Problem Solving Quiz Flashcards

    Reflection and Self-Regulation. G. The two main components of metacognition. Metacognition. E. Can be defined as thinking about thinking. Gestalt Theory. C. Theory that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Study with Quizlet and memorize flashcards containing terms like Convergent Thinking, Divergent Thinking, Concept and more.

  2. 7 Module 7: Thinking, Reasoning, and Problem-Solving

    Algorithms, heuristics, and the role of confirmation bias (7.3) Effective problem solving sequence (7.3) Apply. By reading and thinking about how the concepts in Module 6 apply to real life, you should be able to: Identify which type of knowledge a piece of information is (7.1) Recognize examples of deductive and inductive reasoning (7.2)

  3. 7.3: Problem Solving

    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.

  4. PDF LESSON 7 THINKING AND PROBLEM SOLVING

    SUMMARY. The process of knowing or acquiring knowledge is called cognition. The process of acquiring knowledge is facilitated by cognitive processes such as attention, thinking, remembering, and reasoning. The cognitive processes are very much specific to human beings and are guided by concepts, facts, propositions, rules, and memories.

  5. 5.3: Using Critical Thinking Skills- Decision Making and Problem Solving

    Using Critical Thinking Skills in Problem Solving. Think of problem solving as a process with four Ps: Define the problem, generate possibilities, create a plan, and perform your plan. Step 1: Define the problem. To define a problem effectively, understand what a problem is—a mismatch between what you want and what you have.

  6. Introduction to Thinking and Problem-Solving

    This is only one facet of the complex processes involved in cognition. Simply put, cognition is thinking, and it encompasses the processes associated with perception, knowledge, problem solving, judgment, language, and memory. Scientists who study cognition are searching for ways to understand how we integrate, organize, and utilize our ...

  7. 5.7 Introduction to Thinking and Problem Solving

    Mental Set. : A mental set is our tendency to approach situations in certain ways because that method worked in the past. Problem Solving. : Problem solving is a cognitive process that involves identifying, analyzing, and resolving problems. It's the mental process we use to find solutions to challenges or obstacles.

  8. 7.5 Problem-Solving

    Our mission is to improve educational access and learning for everyone. OpenStax is part of Rice University, which is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit. Give today and help us reach more students. This free textbook is an OpenStax resource written to increase student access to high-quality, peer-reviewed learning materials.

  9. 7.2: Critical Thinking Skills

    Problem-Solving with Critical Thinking. For most people, a typical day is filled with critical thinking and problem-solving challenges. In fact, critical thinking and problem-solving go hand-in-hand. They both refer to using knowledge, facts, and data to solve problems effectively. But with problem-solving, you are specifically identifying ...

  10. Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

    Critical thinking involves asking questions, defining a problem, examining evidence, analyzing assumptions and biases, avoiding emotional reasoning, avoiding oversimplification, considering other interpretations, and tolerating ambiguity. Dealing with ambiguity is also seen by Strohm & Baukus (1995) as an essential part of critical thinking ...

  11. 7.3 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 is a 4×4 grid. To solve the puzzle ...

  12. Chapter 7: Critical and Creative Thinking

    For most people, a typical day is filled with critical thinking and problem-solving challenges. In fact, critical thinking and problem-solving go hand-in-hand. They both refer to using knowledge, facts, and data to solve problems effectively. But with problem-solving, you are specifically identifying, selecting, and defending your solution.

  13. Thinking and Intelligence

    Figure 7.1 Thinking is an important part of our human experience, and one that has captivated people for centuries. Today, it is one area of psychological study. The 19th-century Girl with a Book by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, the 20th-century sculpture The Thinker by August Rodin, and Shi Ke's 10th-century painting Huike Thinking all reflect the fascination with the process of human ...

  14. Activity 3: Problem Solving

    Step 1- Divergent Thinking. When producing ideas: Strive for quantity (i.e., generate as many ideas as possible) Defer judgement (do not evaluate their effectiveness at this point) Build off others' ideas. Freewheel (at this stage, it is okay to produce wild ideas!)

  15. 7.3: Problem-Solving

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