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## 5.7 Introduction to Thinking and Problem Solving

4 min read • december 22, 2022

Haseung Jun

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 🤔

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.

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## Psychological Sets

The basic idea, theory, meet practice.

TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.

Imagine you’re walking on the sidewalk with a friend and you see a pile of stones—two side by side, and then a chain beneath them forming a curved line. It reminds you of a smile. “Look,” you say. “A face.”

Days later, you’re making pancakes for your toddler, and you pull out some blueberries to put on top. The shape of the pancake reminds you of something: you put two blueberries side by side forming eyes, and then a row beneath them to form a happy face. “Look,” says your two-year-old. “A face.”

Of course, it is difficult not to see a face in these instances—because you see faces frequently, your mind is accustomed to them, and therefore begins to perceive them in other contexts. In this case, you are making use of a psychological set: a group of expectations that guides our perceptions and behaviors. Because your mind is used to things being a certain way, the psychological set colors your expectations, and helps you perceive the world in ways consistent with your views. While the face perception example describes a “perceptual set,” psychological sets are called “mental sets” when they inform how we solve problems.

We don’t see things as they are—we see things as we are. – Anaïs Nin, writer

Mental sets:  Psychological sets that rely on familiar ways of solving problems.

Perceptual sets:  Psychological sets that rely on familiar ways of perceiving stimuli.

Schema:  A cognitive framework, based on previous knowledge and experiences, that helps humans organize and interpret incoming information.

## Mental sets

The mental set was demonstrated in a 1940 experiment by Abraham Luchins. In this experiment, Luchins asked subjects to fill a jug with a specified amount of water, using the content of three other jugs. Only one technique could possibly be used to complete the task. Most candidates were successful—however, this was only the beginning.

After this simple task, Luchins gave his participants a different problem, one that could be solved using the same technique, or a simpler one. Luchins believed that expectations would guide outcomes, informing his theory of psychological sets. Because of this understanding, Luchins hypothesized that his participants would use the same technique as before, even though there were simpler ones available. Luchins was correct. His experiments showed that even when alternatives are available, people tend to use processes that have proved successful in the past. In other words, they tend to rely on mental sets.

In his 1931 experiment, Norman Maier proved what is today known as a specific type of mental set called  functional fixedness . Maier asked participants to find a way to attach two strings hung from a ceiling, with the use of a variety of heavy household items. Although it was possible to complete the task in all circumstances, most of Maier’s subjects could not do it because they could not see uses for these objects other than the ones for which they were designed. For example, they could not possibly see a way a vacuum could be used to tie together two strings, since they were held back by their understanding of what a vacuum is actually used for. Since people were generally unable to look outside the boxes set by their previous expectations, Maier’s subjects failed to complete the task.

## Perceptual sets

In 1955, psychologists Jerome Bruner and Leigh Minturn took the idea of mental sets to inform their study of perceptual sets. They designed an ambiguous handwritten figure that could be interpreted as either the letter B or the number 13. Presenting it alongside a series of numbers, they found that the figure was frequently interpreted as the number 13. When they presented the figure alongside a series of letters, however, their predictions were proved accurate when experiment subjects saw the figure as the letter B. Bruner and Minturn realized that what you see depends on what you look for, and that expectations could frequently influence actual perceptions.

## Abraham Luchins

Abraham Luchins was a student of Max Wertheimer, the originator of Gestalt psychology, a field of psychology which studies perceptions from a structuralist point of view. Although well-versed in the study of perceptions, Luchins is most well known for his research on the mental set and his water jug experiments. Luchins also contributed to a school of research on group psychotherapy and research methods.

## Norman Maier

Norman Maier was an American psychologist who conducted thoughtful and creative experiments in order to provide insight on unique aspects of human behavior. He was the inventor of the “two-cords problem,” which has been widely replicated as evidence of functional fixedness. Maier is also the author of  Principles of Animal Psychology , a 1935 textbook describing his extensive research on the cognitive development of rats.

## Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner was an American psychologist well known for his contributions to cognitive learning theory and educational psychology. Having taught at Harvard, Oxford, and NYU, Bruner is one of the most cited psychologists of our time, and has made provocative research discoveries regarding how we learn, perceive, and interpret information.

## Consequences

Often, mental sets are helpful as they are based on prior experiences, and therefore can inform realistic expectations of the world around us. If there is a solution to a particular problem that has consistently worked in the past, then pulling out this solution is likely to be a quick fix, and should not be advised against.

However, when the problem changes, or a new possible solution presents itself, mental sets can hold us back as we try to work within what we know and resist the temptation to try new things. While having relevant experience is often seen as an advantage in the workplace, it is not always a driver of creativity—and bringing in a novice can often provide a fresh perspective on a problem.

One mental set in particular is referred to as  functional fixedness : the inability to use objects in ways they were not designed for. When you have plenty of experience with an object, you may be unable to make uses for it outside the use for which it was intended. When you encounter a new object, however, you may be able to see how it could do other things to solve a problem because your expectations have yet to be clouded by your experiences.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
—Albert Einstein

Similarly to mental sets, perceptual sets can be both adaptive and inhibiting. While they lead us to make accurate conclusions about our world based on prior expectations, perceptual sets can also keep us within a box prescribed by our own conscious, and close us off to a world that does not fit within our expectations.

Many people have had the experience of going through a breakup, and suddenly seeing signs of their ex-lover everywhere they look. In another context, you may learn a new word and start seeing it everywhere. While the actual world around you hasn’t changed, your perception has. It’s the same reason practising gratitude or harboring an optimistic outlook can cause more positive things to show up in your life—what’s there has not changed; what you’re looking for has.

“What we see deeply depends on what we look for.”
—John Lubbock

## Controversies

• The pitfalls of “expertise” In the late 1990s, psychologist Jennifer Wiley took the idea of mental sets a step further, relying on the experience of fixation: when a person clings rigidly to a mental set that is not proving effective. Wiley’s work revealed that experts, obviously well-versed in their fields, were particularly susceptible to fixation as a result of having highly ingrained mental sets about specific ways to solve a problem. Although it is widely believed that experience will provide the foundation on which problem solving can thrive, this finding—replicated by others—reminds us that a fresh perspective can bring a fresh solution, and that expertise is not always all it’s cracked up to be.
• The power of suggestion Perhaps you remember the 2018 debate about a famous and divisive  audio  clip circulating on Reddit. In this audio clip, listeners could often hear both the names “Yanny” or “Laurel” if they listened closely. Regular people were in uproar, shocked and confused that one sound could have two completely different takeaways. It was later revealed that in actuality, “Laurel” was the sound originally recorded—however, pitched at a high enough frequency, the brain could easily interpret this sound as “Yanny.” While it is possible that either sound could be heard, your interpretation of the audio clip may also depend on your expectations. If a person, prior to having you listen, told you that the sound said “Yanny,” you may be more likely to hear it that way. Just as you should not ask a child if they have a stomach ache because they may suspiciously develop one, the existence of perceptual sets everywhere—even on Reddit—reminds us of the  power of suggestion .

## Case Studies

Mental sets and medical diagnoses.

Even esteemed professionals in our society are susceptible to mental sets. When you arrive at the doctor’s office and begin listing off your recent symptoms, your doctor is challenged with the task of paying attention to you—not the other dozen patients she saw that day. While she listens to you, however, your doctor’s mental picture of your diagnosis and prognosis is subconsciously influenced by the expectations she has around those symptoms, which have been shaped by her other patients’ experiences. Although doctors are surely doing their best, diagnoses are not 100% accurate—and a mental set may cause a doctor to overlook some aspects of your predicament while emphasizing others that suit her expectations. Of course, mistakes that stem from these mental sets can have an enormous compounded impact on patients’ lives, potential health results, and healthcare funding.

## Emotional affect and creativity

In a 2013 study, researchers Haager, Kuhbandner, and Pekrun were able to prove that a positive mood could be beneficial in overcoming the constraints of a mental set. They had participants solve 60 similar problems which were all solved using the same complex strategy. They then gave the participants a break, and purposely induced either positive or negative moods in all of them. Afterward, participants continued to work on the problems, the new ones offering up a potentially simpler solution. The researchers found that participants experiencing a positive mood were much more likely to find the simple solution and use it than those experiencing the negative mood. This finding is important, as it teaches us that frustration begets frustration: when you are in a negative mood, don’t try solving a complex problem. A simpler solution might present itself from a sunnier disposition.

## Related TDL Resources

Priming, explained.

Priming is what happens when you are manipulated into seeing something a certain way because of prior stimuli. It is one effect of perceptual sets, and can have an undue impact on how we make daily decisions.

The Dunning-Kruger effect, explained.

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes why our perceptions of our own talents are inhibited and manipulated by the level of our skills themselves. As we know from mental sets, expertise can sometimes be a barrier to creativity, and novices can often provide innovative ideas in the workplace.

Confirmation bias, explained.

What we see depends on what we look for. Confirmation bias describes our tendency to seek out information that corresponds with beliefs we already hold.

Abraham S. Luchins . (2008, May 8). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved February 13, 2021, from  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_S._Luchins

Blackburn, S. (2020, May 1).  How psychology explains how expectations influence your perceptions . Verywell Mind.  https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-perceptual-set-2795464

Cherry, K. (2020, December 3).  How do mental sets impact your ability to solve problems?  Verywell Mind.  https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-mental-set-2795370

Furong, H., Shuang, T., & Zhujing, H. (2018, December 11).  Unconditional perseveration of the short-term mental set in chunk decomposition . Frontiers.  https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02568/full

Green, H. (2014, March 17).  Perceiving is Believing: Crash Course Psychology #7  [Video]. YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n46umYA_4dM&ab_channel=CrashCourse

Haager, J. S., Kuhbandner, C., & Pekrun, R. (2013). Overcoming fixed mindsets: The role of affect.  Cognition and Emotion ,  28 (4), 756-767.  https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2013.851645

Jerome Bruner . (2003, July 5). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved February 15, 2021, from  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome_Bruner

Problem solving . (2002, February 25). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved February 13, 2021, from  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_solving

McLeod, S. (2010).  Perceptual set . Study Guides for Psychology Students – Simply Psychology.  https://www.simplypsychology.org/perceptual-set.html

Norman Maier . (2012, March 8). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved February 13, 2021, from  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Maier

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## Overview of the Problem-Solving Mental Process

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change.

• Identify the Problem
• Define the Problem
• Form a Strategy
• Organize Information
• Allocate Resources
• Monitor Progress
• Evaluate the Results

Problem-solving is a mental process that involves discovering, analyzing, and solving problems. The ultimate goal of problem-solving is to overcome obstacles and find a solution that best resolves the issue.

The best strategy for solving a problem depends largely on the unique situation. In some cases, people are better off learning everything they can about the issue and then using factual knowledge to come up with a solution. In other instances, creativity and insight are the best options.

It is not necessary to follow problem-solving steps sequentially, It is common to skip steps or even go back through steps multiple times until the desired solution is reached.

In order to correctly solve a problem, it is often important to follow a series of steps. Researchers sometimes refer to this as the problem-solving cycle. While this cycle is portrayed sequentially, people rarely follow a rigid series of steps to find a solution.

The following steps include developing strategies and organizing knowledge.

## 1. Identifying the Problem

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

Some strategies that you might use to figure out the source of a problem include :

• Breaking the problem down into smaller pieces
• Looking at the problem from different perspectives
• Conducting research to figure out what relationships exist between different variables

## 2. Defining the Problem

After the problem has been identified, it is important to fully define the problem so that it can be solved. You can define a problem by operationally defining each aspect of the problem and setting goals for what aspects of the problem you will address

At this point, you should focus on figuring out which aspects of the problems are facts and which are opinions. State the problem clearly and identify the scope of the solution.

## 3. Forming a Strategy

After the problem has been identified, it is time to start brainstorming potential solutions. This step usually involves generating as many ideas as possible without judging their quality. Once several possibilities have been generated, they can be evaluated and narrowed down.

The next step is to develop a strategy to solve the problem. The approach used will vary depending upon the situation and the individual's unique preferences. Common problem-solving strategies include heuristics and algorithms.

• Heuristics are mental shortcuts that are often based on solutions that have worked in the past. They can work well if the problem is similar to something you have encountered before and are often the best choice if you need a fast solution.
• Algorithms are step-by-step strategies that are guaranteed to produce a correct result. While this approach is great for accuracy, it can also consume time and resources.

Heuristics are often best used when time is of the essence, while algorithms are a better choice when a decision needs to be as accurate as possible.

## 4. Organizing Information

Before coming up with a solution, you need to first organize the available information. What do you know about the problem? What do you not know? The more information that is available the better prepared you will be to come up with an accurate solution.

When approaching a problem, it is important to make sure that you have all the data you need. Making a decision without adequate information can lead to biased or inaccurate results.

## 5. Allocating Resources

Of course, we don't always have unlimited money, time, and other resources to solve a problem. Before you begin to solve a problem, you need to determine how high priority it is.

If it is an important problem, it is probably worth allocating more resources to solving it. If, however, it is a fairly unimportant problem, then you do not want to spend too much of your available resources on coming up with a solution.

At this stage, it is important to consider all of the factors that might affect the problem at hand. This includes looking at the available resources, deadlines that need to be met, and any possible risks involved in each solution. After careful evaluation, a decision can be made about which solution to pursue.

## 6. Monitoring Progress

After selecting a problem-solving strategy, it is time to put the plan into action and see if it works. This step might involve trying out different solutions to see which one is the most effective.

It is also important to monitor the situation after implementing a solution to ensure that the problem has been solved and that no new problems have arisen as a result of the proposed solution.

Effective problem-solvers tend to monitor their progress as they work towards a solution. If they are not making good progress toward reaching their goal, they will reevaluate their approach or look for new strategies .

## 7. Evaluating the Results

After a solution has been reached, it is important to evaluate the results to determine if it is the best possible solution to the problem. This evaluation might be immediate, such as checking the results of a math problem to ensure the answer is correct, or it can be delayed, such as evaluating the success of a therapy program after several months of treatment.

Once a problem has been solved, it is important to take some time to reflect on the process that was used and evaluate the results. This will help you to improve your problem-solving skills and become more efficient at solving future problems.

## A Word From Verywell​

It is important to remember that there are many different problem-solving processes with different steps, and this is just one example. Problem-solving in real-world situations requires a great deal of resourcefulness, flexibility, resilience, and continuous interaction with the environment.

## Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how you can stop dwelling in a negative mindset.

You can become a better problem solving by:

• Practicing brainstorming and coming up with multiple potential solutions to problems
• Being open-minded and considering all possible options before making a decision
• Breaking down problems into smaller, more manageable pieces
• Asking for help when needed
• Researching different problem-solving techniques and trying out new ones
• Learning from mistakes and using them as opportunities to grow

It's important to communicate openly and honestly with your partner about what's going on. Try to see things from their perspective as well as your own. Work together to find a resolution that works for both of you. Be willing to compromise and accept that there may not be a perfect solution.

Take breaks if things are getting too heated, and come back to the problem when you feel calm and collected. Don't try to fix every problem on your own—consider asking a therapist or counselor for help and insight.

If you've tried everything and there doesn't seem to be a way to fix the problem, you may have to learn to accept it. This can be difficult, but try to focus on the positive aspects of your life and remember that every situation is temporary. Don't dwell on what's going wrong—instead, think about what's going right. Find support by talking to friends or family. Seek professional help if you're having trouble coping.

Davidson JE, Sternberg RJ, editors.  The Psychology of Problem Solving .  Cambridge University Press; 2003. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511615771

Sarathy V. Real world problem-solving .  Front Hum Neurosci . 2018;12:261. Published 2018 Jun 26. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00261

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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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

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

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

## PROBLEM-SOLVING STRATEGIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

## Additional Problem Solving Strategies :

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

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

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

Missionary-Cannibal Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

## GESTALT PSYCHOLOGY AND PROBLEM SOLVING

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

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

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

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

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

Solving puzzles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pitfalls to problem solving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

Review Questions:

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

a. an algorithm

b. a heuristic

c. a mental set

d. trial and error

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

a. divide and conquer

b. means-end analysis

d. experiment

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

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

a. anchoring bias

b. confirmation bias

c. representative bias

d. availability bias

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

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

c. emotional learning

d. insight learning

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

a. functional fixedness

c. working memory

Critical Thinking Questions:

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

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

Personal Application Question:

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

anchoring bias

availability heuristic

confirmation bias

functional fixedness

hindsight bias

problem-solving strategy

representative bias

trial and error

working backwards

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

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

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

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

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

heuristic:  mental shortcut that saves time when solving a problem

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

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

problem-solving strategy:  method for solving problems

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

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

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

• Increase Font Size

## Psych 256: Cognitive Psychology SP15

Making connections between theory and reality, problem solving and mental set…or setback.

Throughout our lives we will be forced to make decisions. Some of these decisions will require the ability to solve problems in order to get to that decision. In general, we’ve looked at mental set as it relates to smaller issues but what happens with mental set is applied to bigger issues? What happens if mental set, due to reliance, is used too much? Could it be a seen as a setback?

Let’s remind ourselves what mental set is. Mental set is our tendency to use strategies that we’ve used before to solve to solve problems. (Psych256). Mental Set is not a bad thing when faced with simple tasks such as changing a light bulb. When the light no-longer works, the first thing you think of is to change the bulb not re-wire the house because in the past when you changed the bulb it worked. But what happens when mental set is over used for problems that require “out of the box thinking” or for negative behavior?

Jessie is a twenty-five year old man that has admittedly had trouble making good decisions. I’ve known and have dealt with Jessie since he was fourteen years old. I met Jessie when I had to escort him out of a local middle school due to his behavior. Eventually Jessie would leave school and began to commit crimes. By the time Jessie turned twenty he had already been to jail three times.

I asked Jessie, jokingly, why he kept committing crimes because he just wasn’t good at it. Jessie replied that when he was younger he got away with a theft of a gaming console from a local retail center. Jessie told me he needed the system because his friend said he would buy it from him for \$200.00. Jessie said he needed the money to buy things. Jessie told me that not only did he gain confidence that he could continue to steal but he thought he had a “full proof plan” for getting money by stealing items and selling them.

Jessie got caught three times in one week trying to steal things from surrounding stores using the same tactics that he did when he got away with stealing the first time. Is this a form of mental set? Is Jessie’s tendency to use the same strategies that he’s used before holding him back? The answer is yes! The problem he is trying to solve is his need for money. The first time he stole he got away with it and made \$200.00. His mental set about getting money has been created.

Now let’s be clear, in the context in which I’m writing this I am not suggesting that Jessie should change his mental set to commit crimes in a more efficient way…that would be counter-productive and make my job harder. I am suggesting that If Jessie’s was not stuck in his current mental set  as it relates to his problem solving he would be able to make better decision when it was time to problem a solve. Instead of thinking committing crimes is the only way for him to get money, if he wasn’t behind hindered by his mental set he’d be able to think broader, perhaps getting a job, asking for money, get a loan etc.

So how do we make sure we’re not being hindered by our mental set when solving problems?  Jeffrey Nevid, author of Essentials of Psychology: Concepts and Applications suggests thinking through the problem prior to trying figure it out. Ask yourself: what am I required to do, what type of problem is this and what type of problem solving would be best for this situation (Nevid).  Great problem solvers think of many solutions prior to solving the actual problem and brainstorm to get to those solutions. (Nevid)

In Jessie’s case, taking his problem space into consideration, I think a means-end analysis would be best for him when problem solving.  A means-end analysis involves comparing the goal with the starting point and finding ways to overcome the distance and choosing the best path (Psych256). As longs as he’s cognizant of both positive and negative consequences for that analysis when he makes a decision based on his problem solving

So, to revisit the question early in the text, can our mental set be a setback? To me the answer is only if we allow it to be.

• Sites at Penn State

Thinking and Intelligence

## Pitfalls to Problem Solving

Learning objectives.

• Explain some common roadblocks to effective problem solving

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

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

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

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

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

You can view the transcript for “Confirmation Bias: Your Brain is So Judgmental” here (opens in new window) .

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

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

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

You can view the transcript for “Availability Heuristic: Are Planes More Dangerous Than Cars?” here (opens in new window) .

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

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

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

## Think It Over

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

• More information on heuristics. Authored by : Dr. Scott Roberts, Dr. Ryan Curtis, Samantha Levy, and Dr. Dylan Selterman. Provided by : University of Maryland. Located at : http://openpsyc.blogspot.com/2014/07/heuristics.html . Project : OpenPSYC. License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

continually using an old solution to a problem without results

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

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

seeking out information that supports our stereotypes while ignoring information that is inconsistent with our stereotypes

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

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

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

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## Problem-solving and decision making

Problem-solving refers to a way of reaching a goal from a present condition, where the present condition is either not directly moving toward the goal, is far from it, or needs more complex logic in order to find steps toward the goal.

Types of problem-solving

There are considered to be two major domains in problem-solving : mathematical problem solving, which involves problems capable of being represented by symbols, and personal problem solving, where some difficulty or barrier is encountered.

Within these domains of problem-solving, there are a number of approaches that can be taken. A person may decide to take a trial and error approach and try different approaches to see which one works the best. Or they may decide to use an algorithm approach following a set of rules and steps to find the correct approach. A heuristic approach can also be taken where a person uses previous experiences to inform their approach to problem-solving.

Barriers to effective problem solving

Barriers exist to problem-solving they can be categorized by their features and tasks required to overcome them.

The mental set is a barrier to problem-solving. The mental set is an unconscious tendency to approach a problem in a particular way. Our mental sets are shaped by our past experiences and habits. Functional fixedness is a special type of mindset that occurs when the intended purpose of an object hinders a person’s ability to see its potential other uses.

The unnecessary constraint is a barrier that shows up in problem-solving that causes people to unconsciously place boundaries on the task at hand.

Irrelevant information is a barrier when information is presented as part of a problem, but which is unrelated or unimportant to that problem and will not help solve it. Typically, it detracts from the problem-solving process, as it may seem pertinent and distract people from finding the most efficient solution.

Confirmation bias is a barrier to problem-solving. This exists when a person has a tendency to look for information that supports their idea or approach instead of looking at new information that may contradict their approach or ideas.

Strategies for problem-solving

There are many strategies that can make solving a problem easier and more efficient. Two of them, algorithms and heuristics, are of particularly great psychological importance.

A heuristic is a rule of thumb, a strategy, or a mental shortcut that generally works for solving a problem (particularly decision-making problems). It is a practical method, one that is not a hundred per cent guaranteed to be optimal or even successful, but is sufficient for the immediate goal. Working backwards is a useful heuristic in which you begin solving the problem by focusing on the end result. Another useful heuristic is the practice of accomplishing a large goal or task by breaking it into a series of smaller steps.

An algorithm is a series of sets of steps for solving a problem. Unlike a heuristic, you are guaranteed to get the correct solution to the problem; however, an algorithm may not necessarily be the most efficient way of solving the problem. Additionally, you need to know the algorithm (i.e., the complete set of steps), which is not usually realistic for the problems of daily life.

Biases can affect problem-solving ability by directing a problem-solving heuristic or algorithm based on prior experience.

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. There are several forms of bias which can inform our decision-making process and problem-solving ability:

Anchoring bias -Tendency to focus on one particular piece of information when making decisions or problem-solving

Confirmation bias – Focuses on information that confirms existing beliefs

Hindsight bias – Belief that the event just experienced was predictable

Representative bias – Unintentional stereotyping of someone or something

Availability bias – Decision is based upon either an available precedent or an example that may be faulty

Belief bias – casting judgment on issues using what someone believes about their conclusion. A good example is belief perseverance which is the tendency to hold on to pre-existing beliefs, despite being presented with evidence that is contradictory.

MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)

Sample Test P/S Section Passage 3 Question 12

Practice Exam 2 P/S Section Passage 8 Question 40

Practice Exam 2 P/S Section Passage 8 Question 42

Practice Exam 4 P/S Section Question 12

• Problem-solving can be considered when a person is presented with two types of problems – mathematical or personal

• Barriers exist to problem-solving maybe because of the mental set of the person, constraints on their thoughts or being presented with irrelevant information

• People can typically employ a number of strategies in problem-solving such as heuristics, where a general problem-solving method is applied to a problem or an algorithm can be applied which is a set of steps to solving a problem without a guaranteed result

• Biases can affect problem-solving ability by directing a problem-solving heuristic or algorithm based on prior experience.

Mental set: an unconscious tendency to approach a problem in a particular way

Problem : the difference between the current situation and a goal

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

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

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

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

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

Heuristic : mental shortcut that saves time when solving a problem

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

Problem-solving strategy : a method for solving problems

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

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

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

## Learning Objectives

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

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

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

## Problem-Solving Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

## Everyday Connection

Solving puzzles.

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

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

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

## Pitfalls to Problem Solving

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

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

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 ).

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## Does Your Mental Set Need A Tune-Up?

The term “mental set” generally refers to the tendency to fall back on past solutions rather than create new ones. While a mental set may not be automatically good or bad, you can adjust your mental set to be more flexible through various practices. These practices can include developing problem-solving skills, practicing mindfulness and meditation, setting and achieving goals, and engaging in positive self-talk. Another effective method of enhancing your mental set may be to work with a licensed therapist in person or online.

## What Is A Mental Set?

In general, everyone problem-solves, whether they’re at work, at home, or out in the world. There can be many different ways to solve a problem, but sometimes, there is a tendency to fall back on solutions that have worked in the past instead of innovating new ways. This is often called a “mental set.”

One  study explains, “A mental set generally refers to the brain’s tendency to stick with the most familiar solution to a problem and stubbornly ignore alternatives. This tendency is likely driven by previous knowledge (the long-term mental set) or is a temporary by-product of procedural learning (the short-term mental set).”

While a mental set may not be inherently good or bad, it can be helpful to remain aware of it. For individuals interested in enhancing their mental set to be more flexible, there are mental habits that can be easily incorporated.

• Mindfulness and meditation
• Goal-setting and positive self-talk
• Stress management
• Professional help

## Mindfulness And Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation can be used separately or together to improve mental well-being and flexibility. Even though these practices are often recommended for stress management, they can also enhance a mental set through increased problem-solving skills and open-mindedness.

Mindfulness is usually referred to as the practice of staying in the present moment without judging what is happening around you. Specifically, this can refer to paying attention to your thoughts and emotions without judging them. By not judging emotions as they occur, it can free us from the idea that a feeling is “right” or “wrong” or “good” or “bad”.

One significant benefit of mindfulness (especially for enhancing a mental set) is that it can be practiced anywhere. Since the idea is to be fully engaged in the moment, that moment can be out at a restaurant, hanging out at home, or chatting with a friend. Training your mind to tune out distractions through mindfulness can help you see solutions more clearly when solving problems.

Mindfulness can also promote mental flexibility and open-mindedness. Individuals who practice mindfulness often find it easier to switch between perspectives and tasks. This can directly correlate to an enhanced mental set because someone already accustomed to looking at a problem from multiple angles will likely approach new issues the same way.

Similarly, meditation and mindfulness can reduce the influence of personal bias or the tendency to fall back on old patterns. Because both practices usually emphasize acknowledging each thought as it appears, it can become easier for individuals to “sort” through their thoughts and determine which might lead to the most effective solution.

Meditation is another practice that can strengthen problem-solving skills and enhance the mental set. Individuals practicing meditation often become more comfortable focusing on something specific. Many meditators use their breath, while others may use a mantra or thought. Regardless of what they focus on, the intentional focus over time can train the mind to concentrate.

Individuals who meditate may find it easier to create multiple solutions to a problem instead of remaining stuck on one. Meditation can also make individuals more empathetic and compassionate. Staying in touch with emotional states and experiences typically makes it more likely for an individual to be open-minded about the emotions and experiences of those around them. These traits can lead to better collaboration and overall problem-solving skills.

## Goal-Setting And Positive Self-Talk

If you want to be more open-minded and make problem-solving easier, setting goals and engaging in positive self-talk can both be important. Setting goals and speaking positively to oneself can help you overcome negative thought patterns and prioritize solutions.

Forbes quotes Carol Dweck, Stanford psychologist and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, as saying, “Your beliefs and thoughts play a pivotal role in success. Whether conscious or subconscious, they strongly affect what we want and whether we succeed in getting it. Much of what we think we understand of our personality comes from our ‘mindset.’ This both propels us and prevents us from fulfilling our potential.” A mental set can be similar to a mindset in that both can be positive or negative when overcoming challenges, but it depends on the perspective.

Goal setting can be approached from a variety of perspectives, but SMART goals are often especially popular. SMART goals are normally specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound so that they can be easily tracked for progress. Goals should align with personal values and aspirations when possible, potentially making the individual more likely to complete them.

Accomplishing goals often leads to improved confidence and increased motivation, which can both be beneficial in enhancing the mental set. Goals can encourage open-mindedness because individuals must usually evaluate different methods of accomplishing the goal before starting the journey. Considering different approaches can help them be more open to other solutions when problem-solving.

Self-talk typically refers to the way an individual speaks to themselves. Those who engage in positive self-talk tend to be likelier to use uplifting and empowering language to encourage themselves. By repeatedly choosing positive ways to describe themselves, they can replace negative thought patterns with positive ones. Positive self-talk is also usually linked to high self-esteem and confidence, which can enhance mental flexibility and help achieve goals, both of which can be important for enhancing mental sets.

Finally, positive self-talk can increase open-mindedness because individuals may be more likely to question negative beliefs they may be holding onto. Replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk can result in approaching challenges with a growth or solution-oriented mindset.

## Mindset Shift

Sometimes, tools may not be enough to enhance the mental set, and a total mindset shift may be necessary. A mindset can be indicative of an individual’s approach to problem-solving and is usually a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

Fixed mindsets typically involve the belief that abilities are innate and cannot be changed, while a growth mindset usually believes that abilities can be developed through effort and learning. Individuals with a growth mindset are often more open-minded and tend to improve their problem-solving skills constantly.

Some may find it helpful to approach a problem with a different mindset altogether. If past solutions and fixed mindsets aren’t working,  Forbes recommends trying one of the following:

• “Beginner's mindset—one that remains open to learning and seeing things with a fresh set of eyes every time. Evolving as a leader requires this openness to change, to dynamic interpretations of situations that would otherwise be quickly and easily dismissed. There's also a sense of playfulness that I believe comes with approaching business challenges in this way, allowing for creative solutions that might be overlooked by a more stringent, traditional way of thinking.”
• “In addition, applying the growth mindset—which, by definition, is one where the entrepreneur embraces challenges and leverages pitfalls or setbacks along the way as learning experiences rather than limitations—is especially critical for leaders to accept because hurdles to success are inevitable when starting a new business venture.”

## Professional Help For Enhancing Your Mental Set

Seeking the help of a professional can be a beneficial next step for those wishing to enhance their mental set.  Online therapy can connect you with a therapist who may help you identify challenges or biases, create strategies to overcome them and enhance your mental set for future problems. Whether you are looking to overcome a specific issue or improve your overall mental set, a professional can be valuable in achieving those goals.

Online therapy can be especially convenient because of its availability and flexibility. Individuals who have a busy schedule or do not have geographical availability to mental health services near them can schedule appointments and speak to their therapist using the internet. Additionally, online therapy usually offers appointments outside regular business hours to ensure patients can reach mental health support at a time that is convenient for them.

One study investigated adherence to online and face-to-face (F2F) interventions and found, “Past studies have consistently found that online treatments can save the therapists time and support relapse prevention after F2F therapy. Additional strengths of online interventions over F2F interventions are that they are deliverable from remote locations, need less time commitment, and provide more flexibility for therapists and patients. Another advantage may be that the risk of stigma due to a mental disorder and seeking treatment is reduced.” These benefits can make online therapy an effective choice for those looking to enhance their mental set.

## What are the symptoms of being addicted to social media?

Social media addiction symptoms may be similar to those traditionally associated with substance use . These may include mood changes, preoccupation with social media use, tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse. Someone addicted to social media sites may experience disruption in other areas of their life, like ignoring real life relationships or having problems at work or school.

## What causes social media addiction?

Some experts feel that social media addiction may be related to dopamine in the brain . Generally, humans are social animals, and the ease of connecting on social media apps may have made us vulnerable to this kind of behavioral addiction. Interacting or scrolling through social media apps can cause large amounts of dopamine to flood our brains and trigger our internal reward system, similar to the effects of alcohol or heroin. When we log off a social media site, our brains can experience a dopamine deficit as they try to adapt to the high levels of dopamine released by excessive social media usage.

## What are the side effects of social media?

The side effects of social media and social media apps are still being studied, but some recent research shows that anxiety and depression are the most common. This research also found that more females are addicted to social media than males and passive activity, like reading posts, was more likely to lead to depression than active use, like making posts.

## How do I fix my social media addiction?

There are a few things you can do to try to reduce your dependence on addictive social media. Take a break and try to notice the parts of your life you might ignore with excessive time spent on social media. Set boundaries for yourself about how much time you want to spend on social media and hold yourself accountable. Use any new-found free time to try a new hobby or other things you enjoy. Limit the accounts that you follow, blocking any that make you feel bad about yourself.

When you’re back online, turn off notifications. That way, you won’t be tempted to check your socials every time you get a notification. If you feel that social media is the only way you have to connect with people, find other ways to keep in touch with friends and family and form real life relationships. In-person meetups or classes are great ways to meet new people, but if you have social anxiety or prefer to meet with people online, you can do virtual meetups, too.

If you have tried these things and they’re not working or if you want to talk to someone who can offer you advice and support and your addiction to online social networking sites, consider reaching out to an online therapist.

## Is social media addiction a disorder?

Social media addiction is not a recognized disorder in the DSM-5, but researchers worldwide are studying it, so that may change.

## What is the most harmful effect of social media?

The most harmful effect of social media platforms may be the mental health issues it can cause, including increased risk of depression and anxiety, low self-esteem, greater chance of relationship issues, increased potential for stress, increased isolation-aligned behaviors, and potential for a lowered body image.

## How does social media affect students' lives?

Problematic social media use can have a significant impact on students’ lives. One recent study found that the negative effects of social media on students may include reduced learning and research capabilities, time wastage, reduction in real human contact, loss of motivation, and low grades.

## How long does social media addiction last?

Social media affects people differently, and everyone will respond to treatment in their own way, so it is difficult to determine how long social media addiction will last. Some recent research shows that weekly sessions of CBT over 10 weeks may be sufficient for internet addiction or 15 weeks for group therapy .

## Who is affected by social media addiction?

Anyone can experience social media addiction, but some research shows it may be particularly damaging to teens and young adults. This may be because of the difference between their brains . Social media does activate the brain’s reward center in adults, but adults tend to have a fixed sense of self that is less affected by feedback from peers and adults have a more mature brain, which helps regulate the emotional response to social rewards.

## What does social media do to your brain?

Our brains release dopamine when we make connections with other people , which encourages us to do it again. With excessive social media use, the constant connection and validation can leave us vulnerable to overconsumption, which releases large amounts of dopamine in the brain, stimulating our reward pathways. This effect is similar to what happens when people use meth, alcohol, or heroin, and it amplifies the feel-good properties that attract us to other people in the first place.

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Original research article, unconditional perseveration of the short-term mental set in chunk decomposition.

• School of Psychology, Jiangxi Normal University, Nanchang, China

A mental set generally refers to the brain’s tendency to stick with the most familiar solution to a problem and stubbornly ignore alternatives. This tendency is likely driven by previous knowledge (the long-term mental set) or is a temporary by-product of procedural learning (the short-term mental set). A similar problem situation is considered the factor required for perseveration of the long-term mental set, which may not be essential for the short-term mental set. To reveal the boundary conditions for perseveration of the short-term mental set, this study adopted a Chinese character decomposition task. Participants were asked to perform a practice problem that could be solved by a familiar loose chunk decomposition (loose solution) followed by a test problem, or they were asked to repeatedly perform 5–8practice problems followed by a test problem; the former is the base-set condition, and the latter is the enhanced-set condition. In Experiment 1, the test problem situation appeared to be similar to the practice problem and could be solved using the reinforced loose solution and also an unfamiliar tight chunk decomposition (tight solution) (a 2-solution problem). In Experiment 2, the test problem situation differed from the practice problem and could only be solved using an unfamiliar tight solution (a 1-solution problem). The results showed that, when comparing the enhanced-set and base-set conditions, both the accuracy rate and the response times for solving the test problem with a tight solution were worse in Experiment 1, whereas the response times were worse in Experiment 2. We concluded that perseveration of the short-term mental set was independent of the similarity between problem situations and discuss the differences in perseveration between two types of fixation.

## Introduction

A mental set is also known as the Einstellung effect, which represents a form of rigidity in which an individual behaves or believes in a certain manner. In the field of psychology, this effect has typically been examined in the process of problem solving and specifically refers to the brain’s tendency to stick with the most familiar solution and to stubbornly ignore alternatives ( Schultz and Searleman , 2002 ). Both prior knowledge and a similar problem situation were considered the factors required to induce an attentional bias toward the familiar solution ( Lovett and Anderson, 1996 ). In addition, the mental set is also likely formed and strengthened by repeatedly practicing a particular solution in a short time and can be interpreted as a temporary by-product of procedural learning ( Ohlsson, 1992 ; Ollinger et al., 2008 ). However, whether a similar problem situation is an essential factor for perseveration of the short-term mental set remains largely unknown.

The mental set is likely driven by previous knowledge, particularly expertise in a domain ( Wiley, 1998 ; Ricks et al., 2007 ; Ellis and Reingold, 2014 ), which can be defined as the long-term mental set. This mental set always occurs when people are confronted with a problem situation that is similar to previously experienced problem situations. Previously acquired knowledge likely helps problem solvers to understand, interpret and solve problems quickly and also likely has a negative impact. For example, most errors that doctors make are not connected to their inadequate medical knowledge but rather to the tendency to form opinions quickly based on previous experience. Once the initial diagnosis is formed, it guides doctors in the search for supporting evidence, which in turn introduces a risk of missing important aspects unrelated to the initial diagnosis.

In a laboratory experiment, chess players were required to find a checkmate position with the fewest number of moves. If players were given a 2-solution problem that had two possible solutions, a familiar solution that took five moves and a less familiar solution that took three moves (the optimal solution), then most of the players selected the familiar but non-optimal solution and failed to notice the shorter solution ( Bilalić et al., 2008 ). Eye tracking technology revealed that the cognitive mechanism underlying this phenomenon was attentional bias, where previous knowledge likely directs attention toward relevant information and away from irrelevant information. Accordingly, players rapidly fixated on the target region that was associated with the familiar but longer solution (i.e., checkmate in five moves) and spent more time looking at these squares rather than those relevant to the shortest solution (i.e., checkmate in three moves), even when they reported that they were searching for alternative solutions in an open-minded manner ( Bilalić et al., 2008 , 2010 ; Sheridan and Reingold, 2013 ). Thus, the search for a solution became self-fulfilling as the familiar solution was consistent with previously acquired knowledge and was more likely to be utilized ( Bilalić et al., 2008 , 2010 ; citealpBR1). If a problem situation is different from previous experiences, then no cues will elicit retrieval of previously acquired knowledge and no attentional bias will occur.

In addition, the mental set is also likely strengthened by repeated practice in a short time and can be interpreted as a temporary by-product of procedural learning ( Ohlsson, 1992 ). One of the most famous examples is the so-called water jar problem, which was originally developed by Luchins ( Luchins, 1942 ; Luchins and Luchins, 1969 ). Participants are presented with three jars (A, B, and C), each of which holds a certain amount of water. The goal is to determine how the jars can be used to obtain a designated amount of water. A series of practice problems can only be solved using a complicated strategy (e.g., A – B – 2C), which participants learn quickly. Subsequently, the participants are provided a test problem (called the 2-solution problem) that could be solved using either the complicated strategy or a much easier strategy (e.g., A – C). Typically, most participants continue to use the complicated strategy instead of the simple strategy. In this case, fixation is induced by repeatedly reinforcing a small number of similar problems in people who have never experienced the task before, which can be defined as the short-term mental set.

In previous studies, the short-term mental effect has been demonstrated in both the laboratory and real-life settings using a range of different problem-solving tasks ( Schultz and Searleman, 2002 ). However, the neurocognitive mechanism underlying this effect and its boundary conditions remain largely unknown. One possibility is that the reinforced solution gradually realizes mechanization, which likely becomes automatically activated during the next problem when the problem situation is similar to the former practice problems. Accordingly, problem solvers progressively require less time to solve problems with a reinforced solution but also experience greater difficulties in searching for alternative solutions ( Neroni et al., 2017 ). Meanwhile, mechanization of a particular solution likely implies that people’s brains lost flexibility to manage novel stimuli or tasks. Therefore, although the next problem situation was different from the former practice problems, negative influences of the short-term mental set likely remained. More generally, regardless of whether the next problem is similar to the former practice problems, problem solving will be hindered when people try to use alternative solutions rather than the reinforced solution.

To reveal the boundary conditions of perseveration of the short-term mental set, a chunk decomposition task was adopted in this study. As a possible means to solve insight problems, chunk decomposition refers to decomposing familiar patterns into their components such that they can be regrouped in a different and meaningful manner ( Knoblich et al., 1999 ). Based on whether the components of the chunks to be decomposed are themselves meaningful perceptual patterns, chunk decomposition can be divided into loose and tight levels. Decomposing the numeral “VI” into “V” and “I” is an example of loose chunk decomposition, and decomposing ‘X’ into “/” and “∖” is an example of tight chunk decomposition because ‘VI’ is composed of meaningful small chunks (‘V’ and ‘I’), whereas ‘X’ is composed of meaningless small chunks (“/” and “∖”) ( Knoblich et al., 1999 ). Generally, participants are more familiar with loose chunk decomposition rather than tight chunk decomposition due to previous knowledge about chunks ( Knoblich et al., 1999 ; Wu et al., 2013 ; Huang et al., 2015 ), but the latter strategy is critical to solving insight problems. Moreover, previous studies have demonstrated that performance in solving mathematical problems with loose chunk decomposition (a loose solution) was improved by repeated practice in the set ( Knoblich et al., 2001 ; Chi and Snyder, 2011 ), i.e., the short-term mental set of chunk decomposition was formed and strengthened by intense practice. After repeatedly solving 5∼8 practice mathematical problems using a loose solution, participants were asked to solve a test mathematical problem, which was different from the practice problem and could only be solved by tight chunk decomposition (a tight solution), in the experimental condition; or else participants were asked to perform a test mathematical problem after repeatedly solving several anagrams in the control condition ( Ollinger et al., 2008 ). Results showed no significant difference in the performance of the test problem between two conditions. Researchers believe that the short-term mental set did not perseverate in the test problem since it was insightful ( Ollinger et al., 2008 ) and different from the practice problem situation. However, another possibility is that perseveration of the short-term mental set was independent on the problem situation similarity, and was happened in both the experimental condition and the control condition; or the short-term mental set likely perseverate in a totally different problem situation.

To further reveal the boundary condition of the short-term mental set, we selectively adopted the design of Ollinger et al. (2008) in this study. Participants were asked to repeatedly perform 5–8 practice problems that could be solved using a loose solution, followed by a test problem, or they were asked to perform a single practice problem followed by a test problem; the former is the enhanced-set condition, and the latter is the base-set condition. In Experiment 1, the test problem situation appeared to be similar to the practice problem and could be solved by the reinforced loose solution and also an unfamiliar tight solution (a 2-solution problem). In Experiment 2, the test problem situation was different from the practice problem and could only be solved by an unfamiliar tight solution (a 1-solution problem). By comparing the success probability and response time of solving the test problem with an unfamiliar tight solution between the enhanced- and base-set conditions, the influences of the short-term mental set on the unfamiliar tight solution were revealed, allowing examination of whether perseveration of the short-term mental set was independent of the situation similarity between the practice problems and the test problem.

We assumed that the short-term mental set would be formed and strengthened after repeatedly solving several similar practice problems using the loose solution and would negatively influence solving of the test problem with an unfamiliar tight solution. The accuracy rates and response times associated with the tight solution for the test problem would be worse in the enhanced-set condition versus the base-set condition regardless of whether the test problem situation was similar to the practice problems.

## Experiment 1

Participants.

Thirty-two paid participants (18 males between the ages of 18 and 22 years; mean age 20.11 ± 1.31 years) recruited from the Jiangxi Normal University participated in the task as paid volunteers. They were all native Chinese speakers and had normal or corrected-to-normal vision. Before the experiment, all participants signed the informed consent form approved by the institutional review board of the Jiangxi Normal University.

Figure 1. Example of the Chinese character decomposition task in this study.

Two conditions were created in this study, namely, the base-set and enhanced-set conditions, and their presentation sequences were random. In the base-set condition, the participants were asked to perform a practice problem that could be solved only by a loose solution (decompose and remove radicals), followed by a test problem that could be solved by a loose solution and also a tight solution (decompose and remove strokes). In the enhanced-set condition, the participants were asked to continuously perform 5∼8 similar practice problems, followed by one test problem; the range was designed to prevent participants from anticipating. In both conditions, the test problem situation was similar to the practice problems in which the character to be decomposed had a radical element that was closely associated with the loose solution. In total, 24 practice problems and 24 test problems were included in the base-set condition, and 156 practice problems and 24 test problems were included in the enhanced-set condition. Each problem was a Chinese character that was highly familiar to the participants, who were native Chinese speakers.

The time course of each trial is shown below (see Figure 2 ). After a period of 500∼800 ms that was designed to reduce expectation, the character to be decomposed appeared in the center of the screen for up to 3,000 ms. During this period, the participants were instructed to consider the answers one by one and to press a response key with the right index finger as soon as they determined an answer. Then, an input box appeared on the screen, and the participants were given an unlimited period of time to enter their answers using a keyboard and then press the “Enter” key to complete the task. Subsequently, the same character again appeared in the center of the screen for up to 10,000 ms minus the reaction time for the first encounter, and the participants were given an unlimited amount of time to enter their answers using a keyboard, or the participants could press the “Space” key to end the trial if they believed that no other answer was possible. Thus, both the character to be decomposed and the answer input box appeared twice since two answers were required for the test problem, and the same procedure was applied to the practice problem for coherence. After the participants finished a practice problem and a test problem or 5∼8 practice problems and a test problem in the set, a 3∼5-s interval was included as a break. The random length was designed to reduce the impact of expectation and preparation.

Figure 2. Example of the experimental trial timeline in Experiment 1.

To demonstrate the influences of the short-term mental set on chunk decomposition, we compared the response times and accuracy rates of the loose solution for both the practice and test problems and the tight solution for the test problem between the enhanced-set condition and the base-set condition.

For the accuracy rate, a 2 (condition: base-set, enhanced-set) × 2 (solution: loose, tight) repeated-measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) revealed significant effects of the condition [ F (1,31) = 6.58, p = 0.015, η 2 = 0.18], the solution [ F (1,31) = 940.16, p < 0.001, η 2 = 0.97], and the interaction effect [ F (1,31) = 11.00, p = 0.002, η 2 = 0.26]. The participants achieved fewer correct responses for the tight solution in the test task in the enhanced-set condition than in the base-set condition [ t (31) = 9.42, p = 0.004], but no significant differences emerged between the enhanced-set condition and the base-set condition for the loose solution [ t (31) = 0.24, p = 0.63] (Figure 3 ).

Figure 3. The panel shows the mean accuracy rate and the mean response times for loose and tight solutions for character decomposition in both the base-set and enhanced-set conditions in Experiment 1. Error bars represent the 95% confidence interval. The asterisks indicate significant differences between conditions ( ∗ p < 0.05, ∗∗ p < 0.01, ∗∗∗ p < 0.001).

For the mean response times, a 2 (condition: base-set, enhanced-set) × 2 (solution: loose, tight) repeated-measures ANOVA showed significant effects of the condition [ F (1,31) = 7.75, p = 0.009, η 2 = 0.20], the solution [ F (1,31) = 203.25, p < 0.001, η 2 = 0.87] and the interaction effect [ F (1,31) = 5.67, p = 0.024, η 2 = 0.16]. The reaction times of the tight-level solution for the test task were longer in the enhanced-set condition than those in the base-set condition [ t (31) = 6.87, p = 0.013], but no difference in response time for the loose solution for both tasks was found in either condition [ t (31) = 0.74, p = 0.40] (Figure 3 ).

## Experiment 2

Twenty-eight participants (20 males between the ages of 18 and 22 years; mean age 19.93 ± 1.36 years) recruited from the Jiangxi Normal University participated in the task as paid volunteers. They were all native Chinese speakers and had normal or corrected-to-normal vision. Before the experiment, all participants signed the informed consent forms approved by the institutional review board of the Jiangxi Normal University.

The time course for each trial was as follows (see Figure 4 ). After 500∼800 ms, the character to be decomposed appeared in the center of the screen for up to 10,000 ms. During this period, the participants were asked to press a response key with the right index finger as soon as they determined an answer. Subsequently, an input box appeared on the screen, and the participants were given an unlimited amount of time to enter their answers using a keyboard and press the “Enter” key to complete the task. After the participants finished a practice problem and a test problem or 5∼8 practice problems and a test problem in the set, a 3∼5-s interval was provided as a break.

Figure 4. Example of the experimental trial timeline in Experiment 2.

To demonstrate the influences of the short-term mental set on chunk decomposition, we compared the response times and accuracy rates of the loose solution for all practice problems and the tight solution for the test problem between the enhanced-set condition and the base-set condition.

For the accuracy rate, a 2 (condition: base-set, enhanced-set) × 2 (solution: loose, tight) repeated-measures ANOVA revealed significant effects of the solution [ F (1,27) = 107.41, p < 0.001, η 2 = 0.80], indicating that the participants had fewer correct responses for the tight solution versus the loose solution, whereas the main effects of the condition [ F (1,27) = 0.02, p = 0.89, η 2 = 0.001] and the interaction effect [ F (1,27) = 0.06, p = 0.81, η 2 = 0.002] were not significant (Figure 5 ).

Figure 5. The panel shows the mean accuracy rate and the mean response times for the practice and test problems in both the base-set and enhanced-set conditions in Experiment 2. Error bars represent the 95% confidence interval. The asterisks indicate significant differences between conditions ( ∗∗∗ p < 0.001).

For the mean response times, a 2 (condition: base-set, enhanced-set) × 2 (solution: loose, tight) repeated-measures ANOVA showed the significant effects of the condition [ F (1,27) = 16.12, p < 0.001, η 2 = 0.37], the solution [ F (1,27) = 371.25, p < 0.001, η 2 = 0.93] and the interaction effect [ F (1,27) = 29.50, p < 0.001, η 2 = 0.52]. The reaction times of the tight solution were longer in the enhanced-set condition than those in the base-set condition [ t (27) = 23.85, p < 0.001], but no difference in response time for the loose solution was found between the two conditions [ t (27) = 1.18, p = 0.29] (Figure 5 ).

To reveal the boundary conditions of perseveration of the short-term mental set, this study adopted a Chinese character decomposition task. Participants were asked to perform a practice problem that could be solved by a familiar loose solution followed by a test problem, or they were asked to repeatedly perform 5–8 practice problems followed by a test problem; the former task is the base-set condition, and the latter task is the enhanced-set condition. The test problem situation was similar to the practice problem, which included a character with a radical structure, and could be solved by the reinforced loose solution and also an unfamiliar tight solution (Experiment 1), or the situation was different from the practice problem, which included a character without a radical structure, and could only be solved using an unfamiliar tight solution (Experiment 2). The results showed that the participants’ performance in solving the test problems with the unfamiliar tight solution was worse in the enhanced-set condition than in the base-set condition regardless of whether the test problem situation was similar to the practice problems.

For the 2-solution test problem in both the base- and enhanced-set conditions of Experiment 1, all of the participants selected the loose solution as their first choice even though no cue toward a loose or tight solution was provided in the experimental instructions, and the probability of using the loose solution was much higher than that of using the tight solution. This result was consistent with the chunk decomposition hypothesis that chunk decomposition begins with loose chunks, and that the probability that a chunk will be decomposed is inversely proportional to the tightness of the chunk ( Knoblich et al., 1999 ). The processing tendency toward loose chunk decomposition likely reflected the long-term mental set, which originated from previous knowledge about chunks. In particular, Chinese characters are composed of radicals, which are composed of strokes. Because radicals are meaningful elements and can be viewed as independent units, people likely consider removing radicals as the first choice in the process of chunk decomposition when a radical structure is present in the characters ( Luo and Knoblich, 2007 ; Luo et al., 2008 ). In other words, previous knowledge biased attention toward the radical structure and the corresponding loose solution, which was likely prioritized first when performing the Chinese characters decomposition task.

Compared with the base-set condition of Experiment 1, the participants had a lower probability of identifying and required more time to search for the tight solution for the test problem in the enhanced-set condition, reflecting the negative influence of the short-term mental set. As a temporary by-product of procedural learning, the short-term mental set was formed and strengthened with repeated practice of a particular solution. The solution that was satisfactory for all of the practice problems resulted in gradual realization of mechanization, which was likely automatically activated in the problem situation that was similar with prior practice problems ( Lovett and Anderson, 1996 ). Accordingly, problem solvers become faster at solving similar consecutive problems ( Ollinger et al., 2008 ). In this study, performance in solving the practice problem did not increase in the enhanced-set condition compared with the base-set condition, likely because of a ceiling effect. More importantly, performance in solving the test problem by the unfamiliar tight solution was decreased in the enhanced-set condition versus the base-set condition. Two possible mechanisms may underlie this phenomenon. First, reinforced practice enhanced the attentional bias toward the loose solution since a radical structure was present in the test problem situation and in the practice problems. Second, a particular solution realizing mechanization indicates that cognitive and neural adaptation occurred, and the participants may have lost the flexibility to shift their attention to search for other solutions.

For the 1-solution test problem in both conditions of Experiment 2, no radical element was present for retrieval of the loose solution, and the loose solution did not interfere with the tight solution. Therefore, the accuracy rate of solving the test problem with an unfamiliar tight solution was relatively high. Compared with the base-set condition, the participants showed poorer performance in solving the test problem by the tight solution after repeatedly solving the practice problems by the loose solution. This result revealed that the short-term mental set persisted in a different problem situation even though no attentional bias toward the radical structure and its corresponding loose solution likely occurred. The only possible explanation is that mechanization of a particular solution decreased cognitive flexibility, which likely increased the switching costs from the practiced problems to a totally different problem. Therefore, perseveration of the short-term mental set was independent of the similarity between the problem situations. Regardless of whether the next problem situation is similar to the previously practiced problems, problem solving will be hindered when people try to explore alternative solutions rather than using the repeatedly reinforced solution.

Although the formation mechanisms of the long-term mental set and the short-term mental set are completely different, these two kinds of fixation likely occur at the same time. In particular, the short-term mental set can be formed and strengthened on the basis of the long-term mental set. As in this study, the short-term mental set of chunk decomposition was formed and strengthened after the participants repeatedly solved several practice problems with the loose solution, which was driven by the long-term mental set originating from previous knowledge about Chinese character chunks. Then, when the next problem situation was similar to the previously practiced problems, influences from both the long-term mental set and also the short-term mental set manifested. The former set likely decreased the accuracy rate of solving the test problem with the tight solution due to an attentional bias toward the familiar loose solution, whereas the latter set likely increased the response times of solving the test problem with the tight solution since cognitive flexibility was lost after a particular process realizing mechanization. Therefore, both the accuracy and the response time in solving the test problem with an alternative solution were worse in the enhanced-set condition than those in the base-set condition (in Experiment 1). If the next problem situation was not similar to the previously practiced situation, then the influence from the short-term mental set leads to cognitive inflexibility, which likely affected performance on the switching task. Consequently, the participants spent considerably more time searching for and executing the solution in the enhanced-set condition versus the base-set condition (in Experiment 2). The different influences of the test problem on performance in the two experiments also demonstrated the differences in perseveration of the long-term mental set and the short-term mental set.

In sum, the short-term mental set that was formed and strengthened by repeated reinforcement of a particular solution to solve a set of similar practice problems not only likely increased the attentional bias toward the familiar solution when the test problem situation was similar to the practice problems but also likely decreased cognitive flexibility and increased the switching costs from the practice problems to a totally different test problem. Perseveration of the short-term mental set was independent of the similarity between problem situations. Therefore, the short-term mental set was different from the long-term mental set since the latter can only be induced when a similar situation activates previous knowledge. This study largely broadens our general understanding of the mental set and not only distinguished two types of mental sets on the basis of the forming processes but also revealed the differences in the necessary conditions for perseveration. In future research, the neurocognitive mechanism underlying the two types of fixation should be further investigated.

## Ethics Statement

This study was carried out in accordance with the recommendations of Norms for human behavior experiments in Jiangxi Normal University with written informed consent from all subjects. All subjects gave written informed consent in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. The protocol was approved by the institutional review board of the Jiangxi Normal University.

## Author Contributions

FH and ST designed the experiments. ST collected and analyzed the data. FH, ST, and ZH wrote the manuscript.

This work was supported by funding programs from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant Nos. 31700956 and 31860278), a project funded by the China Postdoctoral Science Foundation (Grant Nos. 2018M632598 and 2018T110657), the Natural Science Foundation of Jiangxi, China (Grant No. 20181BAB214010), and the Science and Technology Research Project of the Educational Department in Jiangxi Province, China (Grant No. GJJ160343).

## Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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Keywords : mental set, chunk decomposition, attentional bias, procedural learning, Chinese characters, cognitive inflexibility

Citation: Huang F, Tang S and Hu Z (2018) Unconditional Perseveration of the Short-Term Mental Set in Chunk Decomposition. Front. Psychol. 9:2568. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02568

Received: 11 July 2018; Accepted: 30 November 2018; Published: 11 December 2018.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2018 Huang, Tang and Hu. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Furong Huang, [email protected]

Re-representation in Cognitive Systems

## Protecting against mental impasses: Evidence of selective retrieval mitigating the impact of fixation in creative problem solving

Affiliations.

• 1 Ludwigsburg University of Education, Germany. Electronic address: [email protected].
• 2 University of Trier, Germany.
• 3 Ludwigsburg University of Education, Germany.
• PMID: 37422977
• DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2023.105547

A common issue in creative problem solving is the unintended fixation on strongly associated, yet inappropriate solutions. In two experiments, we investigated whether lowering their accessibility by means of selective retrieval can positively affect subsequent problem-solving performance in a Compound Remote Associate test. Misleading associates were strengthened by letting participants memorize them alongside with neutral words. Half of the participants then selectively retrieved the neutral words in a cued recall test, temporarily weakening the activation level of induced fixation. In both experiments, this resulted in less impairment of subsequent performance for fixated CRA problems in early problem-solving stages (0-30 s). Additional results further revealed that participants who had engaged in prior selective retrieval perceived an increased feeling of having had immediate access to target solutions. These findings correspond to the assumption of inhibitory processes being a critical factor in both retrieval-induced forgetting and overcoming fixation in creative problem solving or preventing it from occurring in the first place. Also, they provide important insight into how strongly problem solving success is influenced by fixation.

Keywords: Creative problem solving; Fixation; Retrieval-induced forgetting; Selective memory retrieval.

## Publication types

• Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
• Mental Recall* / physiology
• Problem Solving* / physiology
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## Electric cars have a road trip problem, even for the secretary of energy

Camila Domonoske

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is working hard to convince more Americans to embrace electric cars — and she knows this means the country's charging infrastructure needs to improve, fast. Drew Angerer/Getty Images hide caption

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is working hard to convince more Americans to embrace electric cars — and she knows this means the country's charging infrastructure needs to improve, fast.

When Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm set out on a four-day electric-vehicle road trip this summer, she knew charging might be a challenge. But she probably didn't expect anyone to call the cops.

Granholm's trip through the southeast, from Charlotte, N.C., to Memphis, Tenn., was intended to draw attention to the billions of dollars the White House is pouring into green energy and clean cars. The administration's ambitious energy agenda, if successful, could significantly cut U.S. emissions and reshape Americans' lives in fundamental ways, including by putting many more people in electric vehicles.

Granholm approaches a charging station to charge the Cadillac Lyriq she was riding during a four-day road trip through the southeast early this summer. The electric vehicle had charging problems due to an "isolated hardware issue," Cadillac says. But Granholm's team encountered plenty of not-so-isolated problems too. Camila Domonoske/NPR hide caption

Granholm approaches a charging station to charge the Cadillac Lyriq she was riding during a four-day road trip through the southeast early this summer. The electric vehicle had charging problems due to an "isolated hardware issue," Cadillac says. But Granholm's team encountered plenty of not-so-isolated problems too.

On town hall stops along her road trip, Granholm made a passionate, optimistic case for this transition. She often put up a photo of New York City in 1900, full of horses and carriages, with a single car. Then another slide: "Thirteen years later, same street. All these cars. Can you spot the horse?"

One horse was in the frame.

"Things are happening fast. You are in the center of it. Imagine how big clean energy industries will be in 13 years," she told one audience in South Carolina. "How much stronger our economy is going to grow. How many good-paying jobs we're going to create — and where we are going to lead the world."

## Going along for the ride

The auto industry, under immense pressure to tackle its contribution to climate change, is undertaking a remarkable switch to electric vehicles — but it's not necessarily going to be a smooth transition.

Not every vehicle in Granholm's caravan was electric. The Secret Service, for instance, rode in large traditional SUVs. Camila Domonoske/NPR hide caption

Not every vehicle in Granholm's caravan was electric. The Secret Service, for instance, rode in large traditional SUVs.

I rode along with Granholm during her trip, eager to see firsthand how the White House intends to promote a potentially transformative initiative to the public and what kind of issues it would encounter on the road.

Granholm is in many ways the perfect person to help pitch the United States' ambitious shift to EVs. As a two-term former governor of Michigan, she helped rescue the auto industry during the 2008 global financial crisis, and she's a longtime EV enthusiast. (Her family recently switched from the Chevy Bolt to the Ford Mustang Mach-E.)

That makes her uniquely well positioned to envision the future of the auto industry and to sell the dream of what that future could look like.

But between stops, Granholm's entourage at times had to grapple with the limitations of the present. Like when her caravan of EVs — including a luxury Cadillac Lyriq, a hefty Ford F-150 and an affordable Bolt electric utility vehicle — was planning to fast-charge in Grovetown, a suburb of Augusta, Georgia.

Her advance team realized there weren't going to be enough plugs to go around. One of the station's four chargers was broken, and others were occupied. So an Energy Department staffer tried parking a nonelectric vehicle by one of those working chargers to reserve a spot for the approaching secretary of energy.

## Planet Money

As carbon removal gains traction, economists imagine a new market to save the planet.

That did not go down well: a regular gas-powered car blocking the only free spot for a charger?

In fact, a family that was boxed out — on a sweltering day, with a baby in the vehicle — was so upset they decided to get the authorities involved: They called the police.

The sheriff's office couldn't do anything. It's not illegal for a non-EV to claim a charging spot in Georgia. Energy Department staff scrambled to smooth over the situation, including sending other vehicles to slower chargers, until both the frustrated family and the secretary had room to charge.

This charging station in Grovetown, Ga., was overcrowded. An electric school bus that was driving on a statewide clean-energy road show needed one charger; another charger was broken. Camila Domonoske/NPR hide caption

This charging station in Grovetown, Ga., was overcrowded. An electric school bus that was driving on a statewide clean-energy road show needed one charger; another charger was broken.

## Getting it together

John Ryan, a driver of an electric BMW, pulled up after everything was settled. It was his turn to wait.

"It's just par for the course," he shrugged. "They'll get it together at some point."

## Federal money is now headed to states for building up fast EV chargers on highways

"They" would be the government, the automakers, the charging networks like Electrify America and ChargePoint, and the companies like Walmart, Shell and 7-Eleven that are entering the charging game.

And they are, in fact, desperate to get it together. Carmakers have hundreds of billions of dollars of investment on the line, and they are embracing Tesla's technology and teaming up with rivals to try to tackle the charging problem. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is pouring billions into a nationwide network of electric chargers, trying to fix the very problem Granholm was encountering.

I drive an electric vehicle myself, and I've test-driven many more as NPR's auto reporter. I know how easy it can be to charge when everything goes well and how annoying it can be when things go poorly.

Riding along with Granholm, I came away with a major takeaway: EVs that aren't Teslas have a road trip problem, and the White House knows it's urgent to solve this issue.

## Solving the road trip problem

The road trip has long loomed large in the American automotive imagination.

Road trips are a tiny fraction of the trips Americans take; drivers mostly commute or drive around town. And at home, charging an EV is much easier (not to mention cheaper) than fueling up with gasoline; you just plug in overnight, and you're good to go every morning.

On a practical basis, making sure everyone can charge at home would seem much more important than building road trip chargers. And this is a real concern for some drivers.

But for many drivers, it's not charging at home that worries them: It's what they'll do on the road.

An electric vehicle charger stands in front of an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall and training center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Camila Domonoske/NPR hide caption

An electric vehicle charger stands in front of an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall and training center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

According to the auto-data giant J.D. Power, worries about public chargers are the No. 1 reason why would-be EV buyers are reluctant to make the switch, even outranking concerns about high prices. And driver satisfaction with public chargers is getting worse, not better .

Tesla chargers are significantly better than the competition, and most of the electric vehicles in the U.S. are Teslas.

Tesla is opening up its exclusive network to more vehicles, which could transform the charging experience as soon as next year, but not all automakers have embraced Tesla's technology. And although Tesla dominates the EV market, the Biden administration wants every automaker to go electric quickly and every driver to have access to fast, reliable charging.

"Ultimately, we want to make it super-easy for people to travel long distances," Granholm told me.

But as she knows, long-distance travel in non-Tesla EVs is not always "super-easy" today.

## Problem 1: Planning is cumbersome

The secretary's trip had been painstakingly mapped out ahead of time to allow for charging. We stopped at hotels with slower "Level 2" plugs for overnight charging and then paused at superfast chargers between cities.

That required upfront work that a gas-powered road trip simply doesn't require. My car can hypothetically locate a nearby charger on the road — as with many EVs, that feature is built into an app on the car's infotainment screen — so I shouldn't have to plan ahead. But in reality, I use multiple apps to find chargers, read reviews to make sure they work and plot out convenient locations for a 30-minute pit stop (a charger by a restaurant, for instance, instead of one located at a car dealership).

At a stop in South Carolina, Granholm told audiences she recognized the importance of making chargers easy to find on apps.

For chargers to qualify for new federal money, the energy secretary explained, "they have to be every 50 miles and within 1 mile off the charging corridor, and they have to be app enabled. So you have to be able to see with your phone, is this charger available so that I can go use it, right?"

Granholm talks to executives from Albemarle, a maker of lithium, a vital component of electric vehicle batteries, in Kings Mountain, N.C. Pictured behind her is NPR reporter Camila Domonoske. Conor McCabe/Department of Energy hide caption

Granholm talks to executives from Albemarle, a maker of lithium, a vital component of electric vehicle batteries, in Kings Mountain, N.C. Pictured behind her is NPR reporter Camila Domonoske.

## Problem 2: Not enough chargers

One reason road trips take so much planning: Some parts of the U.S., including much of the southeast, simply don't have many high-speed chargers, also called DC fast chargers.

I happen to live on the edge of a charging desert. In my Virginia hometown, there are no DC fast chargers except for a Tesla Supercharger station, which I can't use ... yet. That's not a problem, since I charge at home. Much more problematic is that if I want to drive through West Virginia, I can access only 11 fast chargers in the entire state. That's actually progress; three weeks ago, there were only eight.

Where chargers are in short supply, drivers sometimes have to wait — like Granholm's team did in Grovetown, Georgia. The experience could get even worse as the number of electric vehicles on the road increases in coming years.

"Clearly, we need more high-speed chargers, particularly in the South," Granholm told me at the end of her trip.

## Big carmakers unite to build a charging network and reassure reluctant EV buyers

She emphasized the \$7.5 billion investment that the Biden administration is making in building more public chargers — money that's currently being distributed to states.

"By the end of this year, I think we'll start to see [those chargers] popping up along the charging corridors," she said.

## Problem 3: Not fast enough

There was another DC charging station about a 10-minute drive from that stop in Grovetown. But that station's chargers were nowhere near as fast. In fact, aside from chargers reserved for Teslas and one charging station just for Rivians, it was more than an hour's drive to the next actually-fast fast charger.

And that brings us to the next problem with America's fast charger network: It's too slow.

When DC fast chargers were first built, 50 kilowatts (a measure of charging speed) was considered speedy. Times have changed. Many newer vehicles can charge at least three times faster than that. But those older chargers remain on roads, making up a sizable chunk of the country's fast-charging infrastructure.

A common sight for electric vehicle drivers: This station is not operating at full speed. Camila Domonoske/NPR hide caption

A common sight for electric vehicle drivers: This station is not operating at full speed.

That doesn't matter much for cheaper vehicles that can't charge very fast anyway, like my Bolt. But for newer, faster-charging vehicles, especially big ones with giant batteries, it could be the difference between waiting 20 minutes to charge — or waiting an hour.

This problem is easing over time. Most new chargers are on the faster end of the spectrum, and the federal incentives are available only for chargers that are 150 kilowatts or faster.

## Problem 4: Not reliable enough

Of course, having a superfast charger doesn't do you any good if the dang thing doesn't work.

On the secretary's road trip, that stop in Grovetown included a charger with a dead black screen. At another stop in Tennessee, the Chevy Bolt that I was riding in charged at one-third the rate it should have. Electrify America says that's not an isolated problem; a faulty component has caused a number of chargers to be "derated" while the company works on a fix.

Companies like Electrify America — funded by Volkswagen as part of its penalty for the Dieselgate scandal — are among the private players that have helped build out America's current charging infrastructure. But reliability is proving to be an issue.

## How fast can the auto industry go electric? Debate rages as the U.S. sets new rules

J.D. Power found that when non-Tesla drivers pull up at a charging station, they leave without charging 20% of the time, because the chargers were either all busy or not functioning.

The federal government has responded with a new requirement: Highway chargers that get federal funds will have to prove they're operational at least 97% of the time.

## The good news: Charging can be great

Despite overcrowding, broken chargers and slow speeds, charging on the road worked most of the time for Granholm's team.

"I think two days in, I would totally buy an EV," an Energy Department staffer who was driving an EV for the first time mused halfway through the trip. "Like, it would be pretty easy to do a road trip. You have to stop for lunch anyway, so you stop, charge, keep going."

Road trip charging can be cheap too. Granholm's 770-mile trip cost one of the Energy Department's drivers just \$35 total, less than half of what gasoline would have run in a similar vehicle.

On a more basic level, Granholm's team was ultimately able to charge in every town it stopped at. There was no risk of being stranded, which was the fear of very early adopters of EVs, back before public chargers were available.

And if you have a garage, a driveway or EV chargers at your workplace, day-to-day charging is even easier. Personally, I plug my Bolt into a standard outlet when I'm home and into a Level 2 charger at NPR's headquarters when I'm in Washington, D.C. I don't sit around and wait for it to charge; I just go about my life. And when I'm ready to go, so is the car.

That's not "just as easy" as filling up a gas-powered car. It's significantly easier.

Tesla Superchargers in San Rafael, Calif., on Feb. 15. Tesla invested in chargers as a way to sell cars, building them where people would want them, regardless of whether the chargers could individually be profitable. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

Tesla Superchargers in San Rafael, Calif., on Feb. 15. Tesla invested in chargers as a way to sell cars, building them where people would want them, regardless of whether the chargers could individually be profitable.

## Tesla's super Superchargers

And then, of course, there are the Tesla chargers, which simply work better than the other chargers out there.

J.D. Power has found that Tesla drivers successfully charge at 96% of the Superchargers they visit.

Tesla invested in chargers as a way to sell cars, building fast, reliable charging stations where people would want them, regardless of whether the chargers could individually be profitable.

Tesla also defied the rest of the auto industry in using its own charging technology rather than the carefully negotiated industrywide standard.

## Opening up the walled garden

The strategy paid off. For years, Tesla kept its network of Superchargers as a walled garden. Tesla drivers raved about them, but no one else could use them.

That started to change this year when Tesla struck a deal with the White House to open some chargers to the general public. And the walled garden blew wide open after Ford announced it was adopting Tesla's charging technology. Future Fords will come with the Tesla-style plug, and starting in January, existing-Ford owners can buy an adapter and plug in.

The idea was born — where else? — on a road trip.

Ford CEO Jim Farley recently told NPR he was driving with his kids on a family vacation, past a huge, conveniently located Tesla Supercharger station. His kids wondered why Farley, who was driving a Mustang Mach-E, couldn't just stop there to charge.

## Ford is losing a lot of money in electric cars — but CEO Jim Farley is charging ahead

Farley explained that they couldn't because those were Tesla chargers.

When he explained why they couldn't charge there, his kids were blunt, as he recalled to NPR in an interview in August: "'Well, that's stupid. They have, like, a lot of free open spots there.'"

And the idea for the Tesla deal was born.

## Other private sector solutions

Ford's announcement kicked off an astonishing shift. In the weeks after, General Motors, Rivian, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan all announced that they too were adopting Tesla's technology. This means that as soon as next year, the EV road trip experience could be dramatically different for non-Tesla drivers.

And then, in a separate surprise move this summer, seven legacy automakers — BMW, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz and Stellantis (formerly known as Fiat Chrysler) — announced they were banding together in a joint venture to launch a new , as-yet-unnamed, charging network.

They plan to build 30,000 superfast 350-kilowatt chargers — even bigger and faster than the Supercharger network.

Meanwhile, existing companies like ChargePoint are clearly feeling pressure to fix their unreliable and underperforming chargers. ChargePoint just announced it's spending millions of dollars on a new operations center and other programs meant to "deliver near-100% charging reliability."

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm tests out an electric leaf blower at a Home Depot stop near Atlanta. In addition to promoting electric vehicles, the federal government has funded new rebates for low-income households that buy cleaner appliances or other upgrades. States are still working on the details for administering those programs. Camila Domonoske/NPR hide caption

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm tests out an electric leaf blower at a Home Depot stop near Atlanta. In addition to promoting electric vehicles, the federal government has funded new rebates for low-income households that buy cleaner appliances or other upgrades. States are still working on the details for administering those programs.

## The road to the future

Those private-led efforts — as well as the muscle and money provided by the government — could prove a game changer.

"The private sector has stepped up," Granholm told me toward the end of her road trip. The response to federal incentives has been, as she put it, "a blockbuster."

Granholm has long been an energetic and optimistic pitchwoman for the electric vehicle future, even before her current position.

On her road trip this summer, she made the case again and again that switching to green energy and clean cars will save money, create jobs and promote national security, on top of being a crucial component in the plan to fight climate change.

"If you're not persuaded by climate change or you think it's not happening, well, you should be persuaded by lowering the costs," she told me.

And as Granholm knows, the cars themselves can be persuasive. Stop me if you've heard this from an EV driver before — but a quiet, speedy vehicle that never needs an oil change is just plain nice to drive, charging headaches and all.

Or ask Holmesetta Green. I met her when she was sitting on a curb in the back corner of a Walmart parking lot, parked right next to Granholm, waiting for her Volkswagen ID.4 to charge.

Green, a 79-year-old retired teacher, frequently makes the six-hour drive from her home in Louisville, Ky., to her hometown in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

## Biden administration proposes new fuel economy standards, with higher bar for trucks

It was hot that day. Hot hot. "You ever fried an egg on a sidewalk?" Green asked me. She wished out loud for a charging station in a park, with a bench in the shade.

I asked her how she likes her SUV. And her answer summed up the anxieties and the hopes of both the Biden administration and the auto industry at large.

"It's not enough chargers over on the major highways," she said. And charging is "kind of slow."

"Other than that, I wouldn't take \$100,000 for this car," she said, smiling ear to ear. "We love it. We love the electric."

• EV chargers
• Inflation Reduction Act
• electric vehicles
• Jennifer Granholm

## Chapter 7: Thinking and Intelligence

Solving problems.

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

## Problem-Solving Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

## Everyday Connections: Solving Puzzles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

## Pitfalls to Problem-Solving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Psychology in Real Life: Choice Blindness. Authored by : Patrick Carroll for Lumen Learning. License : CC BY: Attribution
• Actors Headshots . Authored by : Vanity Studios. Located at : https://www.flickr.com/photos/149481436@N03/34277183806/in/photostream/ . License : CC BY: Attribution
• Image of man. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : https://pixabay.com/en/boy-portrait-outdoors-facial-men-s-3566903/ . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
• https://pixabay.com/en/boy-portrait-outdoors-facial-men-s-3566903/. Authored by : Simon Robben. Provided by : Pexels. Located at : https://www.pexels.com/photo/face-facial-hair-fine-looking-guy-614810/ . License : Public Domain: No Known Copyright
• image of businessman. Authored by : RoyalAnwar. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : https://pixabay.com/en/model-businessman-corporate-2911332/ . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
• man in black shirt. Authored by : songjayjay. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : https://pixabay.com/en/face-men-s-asia-shirts-blacj-young-1391628/ . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
• woman headshot. Authored by : Richard Ha. Provided by : Flickr. Located at : https://www.flickr.com/photos/richardha101/31951459743/in/photolist-QFrzNX-V9Amf2-UM2ZU5-HMQxnd-WmpZx1-5ztiGT-ovm92d-28C1Eyi-qhwZzM-8szjMV-YRsM5B-LCTNFR-LtgVC9-LCUgd8-8gRLbQ-REArrY-WQNThG-ph52sx-2bC2DwH-qE61yp-28NspiC-21h8cj4-RVoBBc-29GiNJ3-21QEU6M-M1YTcp-PePwTJ-LALKtr-RVoBtg-Ry1bpy-FVr9BB-282GDDG-V7zSQJ-NwmdK9-29bSs5N-29mSb5G-272dN8p-26brtas-28tTQWf-RS1osg-WHoUSc-25uETMH-D7crwK-28m9fEh-25taZPB-JCwqE7-241e8Xp-265Ce4A-22V7VVo-25N7i4q . License : CC BY: Attribution
• Can you solve Einsteinu2019s Riddle? . Authored by : Dan Van der Vieren. Provided by : Ted-Ed. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rDVz_Fb6HQ&index=3&list=PLUmyCeox8XCwB8FrEfDQtQZmCc2qYMS5a . License : Other . License Terms : Standard YouTube License
• Using Choice Blindness to Shift Political Attitudes and Voter Intentions. Provided by : ChoiceBlindnessLab. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_htNx0eWmgs . License : Other . License Terms : Standard YouTube License

• Anchoring Bias
• Availability Heuristic
• Confirmation Bias
• Functional Fixedness
• Hindsight Bias
• Problem-solving Strategy
• Representative Bias
• Trial and Error
• Working Backwards

## Problem Solving

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

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

## PROBLEM-SOLVING STRATEGIES

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

A problem-solving strategy is a plan of action used to find a solution. Different strategies have different action plans associated with them ( Table ). 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

## Review Questions

A specific formula for solving a problem is called ________.

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

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

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

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

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

## Critical Thinking Questions

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

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

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

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

## Personal Application Question

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

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1. PPT

2. MCAT Term: Mental Set

3. Problem solving

4. Pin on Lunch Bunch Ideas: School Counseling

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6. ️ Problem solving step. 5 Problem Solving Steps. 2019-01-14

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1. HARDGROOVE MENTAL SET

2. Mental Math

3. 4 Science Backed Strategies for Worrying Less

4. TFardy HCC

5. The Problem Of Mental Deterioration

6. Do you let it ESCALATE? #shorts

1. Mental Set and Seeing Solutions to Problems

A mental set is a tendency to only see solutions that have worked in the past. This type of fixed thinking can make it difficult to come up with solutions and can impede the problem-solving process. For example, that you are trying to solve a math problem in algebra class.

2. Mental Set: Examples, Causes, How to Address It

Mental set, in basic terms, refers to the tendency to stick to solutions that have worked for you in the past when trying to solve a problem. In trying to make these familiar solutions work,...

3. Problem-Solving Strategies and Obstacles

In cognitive psychology, the term 'problem-solving' refers to the mental process that people go through to discover, analyze, and solve problems. A problem exists when there is a goal that we want to achieve but the process by which we will achieve it is not obvious to us.

4. 5.7 Introduction to Thinking and Problem Solving

Mental Set. 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.

5. Psychological Sets

Because your mind is used to things being a certain way, the psychological set colors your expectations, and helps you perceive the world in ways consistent with your views. While the face perception example describes a "perceptual set," psychological sets are called "mental sets" when they inform how we solve problems. ".

6. Overview of the Problem-Solving Mental Process

Allocate Resources. Problem-solving is a mental process that involves discovering, analyzing, and solving problems. The ultimate goal of problem-solving is to overcome obstacles and find a solution that best resolves the issue. The best strategy for solving a problem depends largely on the unique situation. In some cases, people are better off ...

7. 7.3 Problem-Solving

Within psychology, problem solving refers to a motivational drive for reading a definite "goal" from a present situation or condition that is either not moving toward that goal, is distant from it, or requires more complex logical analysis for finding a missing description of conditions or steps toward that goal.

8. Problem Solving and Mental Set…or Setback?

Mental set is our tendency to use strategies that we've used before to solve to solve problems. (Psych256). Mental Set is not a bad thing when faced with simple tasks such as changing a light bulb.

9. Pitfalls to Problem Solving

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. ... 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 ...

10. Mental set

A mental set, or "entrenchment," is a frame of mind involving a model that represents a problem, a problem context, or a procedure for problem solving. When problem solvers have an entrenched mental set, they fixate on a strategy that normally works well but does not… Read More

11. Mental Set As A Problem Solving Barrier

The mental set is one of the barriers to problem-solving strategies, which involves using only a pre-defined solution based upon our previous experiences. Mental set is synonymous with mental rigidity, it represents how one thinks and behaves in a particular manner based upon their previous experiences and environment.

12. Investigating the effect of mental set on insight problem solving

Mental set is the tendency to solve certain problems in a fixed way based on previous solutions to similar problems. The moment of insight occurs when a problem cannot be solved using solution methods suggested by prior experience and the problem solver suddenly realizes that the solution requires d …

13. Problem Solving And Decision Making

Barriers to effective problem solving Barriers exist to problem-solving they can be categorized by their features and tasks required to overcome them. The mental set is a barrier to problem-solving. The mental set is an unconscious tendency to approach a problem in a particular way. Our mental sets are shaped by our past experiences and habits.

14. 7.3 Problem Solving

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.

15. The Influence of Mental Set on Problem-Solving

The Influence of Mental Set on Problem-Solving. The Influence of Mental Set on Problem-Solving. The Influence of Mental Set on Problem-Solving Br J Psychol. 1956 Feb;47(1):63-4. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.1956.tb00563.x. Author I M HUNTER. PMID: 13304282 DOI: 10.1111 ...

16. (PDF) Investigating the Effect of Mental Set on Insight Problem Solving

Mental set is the tendency to solve certain problems in a fixed way based on previous solutions to similar problems. The moment of insight occurs when a problem cannot be solved using...

17. Rigidity (psychology)

Mental set. Mental sets represent a form of rigidity in which an individual behaves or believes in a certain way due to prior experience. It's a ... unsuccessfully solving a problem using methods suggested by prior experience, and c) realizing that the solution requires different methods.

18. Problem Solving

Mental set is a barrier to problem solving; it is an unconscious tendency to approach a problem in a certain way. Functional fixedness is a subtype of mental set and refers to the inability to see an object's potential uses aside from its prescribed uses. Unnecessary constraints are when people construct mental blocks to solving a problem.

19. Set (psychology)

Mental sets can make it easy to solve a class of problem, but attachment to the wrong mental set can inhibit problem-solving and creativity. [4] [6] Perceptual Perception can be shaped by "top-down" processes such as drives and expectations.

The term "mental set" generally refers to the tendency to fall back on past solutions rather than create new ones. While a mental set may not be automatically good or bad, you can adjust your mental set to be more flexible through various practices.

21. Frontiers

A mental set generally refers to the brain's tendency to stick with the most familiar solution to a problem and stubbornly ignore alternatives. This tendency is likely driven by previous knowledge (the long-term mental set) or is a temporary by-product of procedural learning (the short-term mental set).

22. Protecting against mental impasses: Evidence of selective ...

A common issue in creative problem solving is the unintended fixation on strongly associated, yet inappropriate solutions. In two experiments, we investigated whether lowering their accessibility by means of selective retrieval can positively affect subsequent problem-solving performance in a Compound Remote Associate test.

23. nami.force.com

nami.force.com

24. Electric cars have a road trip problem: slow and unreliable charging : NPR

Solving the road trip problem The road trip has long loomed large in the American automotive imagination. Road trips are a tiny fraction of the trips Americans take; drivers mostly commute or ...

25. Solving Problems

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

26. Psychology, Thinking and Intelligence, 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 ( Figure) is a 4×4 grid.