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Barriers to Problem Solving

From solving a basic mathematical equation to deciding to buy a house, problem−solving is an integral part of our daily life. These problems can range from minor to major ones, like planning one's future career. The word "problem−solving" in cognitive psychology refers to the mental process that humans go through to identify, evaluate, and resolve difficulties. It is a complex process involving various steps like identifying and understanding the problem, researching appropriate strategies, and taking effective action to solve the problem and reach desired goals.

problem solving mental barriers

What is the Meaning of Barriers to Problem Solving?

Understanding the precise nature of the problem is crucial before problem−solving can start. One's odds of successfully resolving an issue increase if their knowledge of the problem is inaccurate. People approach problems in various ways and may utilize various methods, like algorithms, heuristics, insight, etc., to identify and resolve problems. An algorithm is a systematic process that always yields the right outcome. An excellent example of a problem−solving algorithm is a mathematical formula. Although an algorithm ensures accuracy, it is not necessarily the most effective method for addressing problems. Due to how time−consuming this method may be, it is not useful in many circumstances. For instance, it would take a very long time to use an algorithm to discover all potential number combinations for a lock.

Heuristics are mental shortcuts that may or may not be effective in particular circumstances. Heuristics do not necessarily ensure a proper answer, in contrast to algorithms. However, by employing this approach to problem-solving, individuals are able to simplify difficult issues and narrow the field of potential answers to a more manageable group.

Another method of problem−solving is the trial−and−error approach which entails testing a variety of options and eliminating the ones that do not work. This strategy could be a decent choice if you have a small selection of possibilities. Before undertaking trial−and−error, it is preferable to reduce the available possibilities using another problem-solving strategy if there are several options.

Lastly, in some cases, the answer to an issue immediately comes to individuals. This might happen when they recognize that the issue at hand is just a rehash of earlier struggles. However, the fundamental mental processes that result in insight take place unnoticed.

What are Barriers to Problem Solving?

It goes without saying that problem−solving is not a foolproof process. Our capacity to rapidly and effectively address a problem may be hampered by a variety of impediments. These mental barriers include functional fixedness, irrelevant information, assumptions, etc.

problem solving mental barriers

Assumptions − People frequently make assumptions about the limitations and barriers that impede specific solutions while addressing an issue or solving a problem.

Functional Fixedness − Functional fixedness is the propensity to perceive issues exclusively in their predetermined ways. Functional fixedness prohibits individuals from completely understanding all of the potential possibilities for a solution.

Unnecessary Constraints − A related barrier is unnecessary constraints that impose arbitrary limitations on an issue or problem. It relates to trying to use past experiences of what has worked in a circumstance to solve an issue and trying to force it to work in the present situation, rather than seeking a new solution. This limits inventiveness. With insight, the obstacle may be removed. The majority of problem−solving techniques center on gaining an understanding of a situation through data collection, analysis, and assessment. Unnecessary restrictions might result from an intellectual or emotional impediment that makes us rely too much on the familiar. An illustration would be trying to enhance a service utilizing the present procedures and processes as opposed to coming up with a solution and creating new procedures and processes.

Irrelevant or Misleading Information − It is critical to discriminate between knowledge that will help one solve the problem and information that won't, as the latter might result in poor solutions. Concentrating on false or unrelated information is simpler when a subject is extremely complicated.

Mental Set − When someone has a mental set, they are more likely to stick with past−effective solutions than consider new ones. An effective tool for problem-solving, a mental set frequently serves as a heuristic. Thought patterns can also be rigid, making it more difficult to develop workable answers.

Confirmation Bias −This is about establishing bias by not using the problem-solving approach. This may be caused by either skipping steps or failing to use them properly. Confirmation When a method is used to support a preconceived conclusion, bias results. In essence, one would have discovered the issue's solution prior to discovering the issue, and one would see the approach to problem-solving from this perspective.

Problem−solving is hindered by a variety of cognitive limitations as well as practical social and physical tasks. Perceptional, emotional, intellectual, expressive, environmental, and cultural factors might all be involved. Cognitive barriers are the patterns of thought and emotion we have. These influence how we approach and solve problems, creating hurdles. They typically provide biased, flawed, and incomplete answers. These obstacles may be overcome by becoming aware of the problems with issue solving and receiving instruction on how to use a solution strategy properly.

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6 Common Problem Solving Barriers and How Can Managers Beat them?

What is the meaning of barriers to problem solving, what are the 6 barriers to problem solving, examples of barriers to problem solving, how to overcome problem solving barriers at work tips for managers, problem solving barriers faqs.

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Lack of motivation

Lack of knowledge, lack of resources, emotional barriers, cultural and societal barriers, fear of failure.

  • Lack of motivation: A person who lacks motivation may struggle to complete tasks on time or produce quality work. For example, an employee who is disengaged from their job may procrastinate on essential tasks or show up late to work.
  • Lack of knowledge : Employees who lack knowledge or training may be unable to perform their duties effectively. For example, a new employee unfamiliar with the company’s software systems may struggle to complete tasks on their computer.
  • Lack of resources: Employees may be unable to complete their work due to a lack of resources, such as equipment or technology. For example, a graphic designer who doesn’t have access to the latest design software may struggle to produce high-quality designs.
  • Emotional barriers: Emotional barriers can affect an employee’s ability to perform their job effectively. For example, an employee dealing with a personal issue, such as a divorce, may have trouble focusing on their work and meeting deadlines.
  • Cultural and societal barriers: Cultural and societal barriers can affect an employee’s ability to work effectively. For example, an employee from a different culture may struggle to communicate effectively with colleagues or may feel uncomfortable in a work environment that is not inclusive.
  • Fear of failure : Employees who fear failure may avoid taking on new challenges or may not take risks that could benefit the company. For example, an employee afraid of making mistakes may not take on a leadership role or hesitate to make decisions that could impact the company’s bottom line.
  • Identify and Define the Problem: Define the problem and understand its root cause. This will help you identify the obstacles that are preventing effective problem solving.
  • C ollaborate and Communicate: Work with others to gather information, generate new ideas, and share perspectives. Effective communication can help overcome misunderstandings and promote creative problem solving.
  • Use Creative Problem Solving Techniques: Consider using creative problem solving techniques such as brainstorming, mind mapping, or SWOT analysis to explore new ideas and generate innovative solutions.
  • Embrace Flexibility: Be open to new ideas and approaches. Embracing flexibility can help you overcome fixed mindsets and encourage creativity in problem solving.
  • Invest in Resources: Ensure that you have access to the necessary resources, such as time, money, or personnel, to effectively solve complex problems.
  • Emphasize Continuous Learning: Encourage continuous learning and improvement by seeking feedback, evaluating outcomes, and reflecting on the problem solving process. This can help you identify improvement areas and promote a continuous improvement culture.

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What are the factors affecting problem solving?

What are the five key obstacles to problem solving, can habits be a barrier to problem solving, how do you overcome barriers in problem solving.

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Barriers to Effective Problem Solving

Mcat psychology - chapter 2- section 4 - cognition - intelligence & problem-solving.

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  • Barriers to Effective Problem Solving – MCAT Psychology

Sample MCAT Question - Barriers to Effective Problem Solving

Which barrier to effective problem solving involves thinking that it is necessary to use all information provided to solve a problem?

a) Irrelevant Information

b) Functional Fixedness

c) Mental Set

d) Unnecessary Constraints

A is correct. The irrelevant information barrier to effective problem solving is the false notion that all information included with the problem is needed to solve the problem. Answer choice B is incorrect because functional fixedness is the tendency to perceive an object only in terms of its most common use. Answer choice C is incorrect because mental set occurs when people continually try to use a problem solving strategy that worked in the past, but may not necessarily be the correct method for the current problem. Answer choice D is incorrect because unnecessary constraints are when individuals assume there are rules that do not exist.

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Barriers to Effective Problem Solving for the MCAT

In the MCAT post, we explore four barriers to effective problem solving that are important to know for the Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section of the MCAT. These four barriers are irrelevant information, functional fixedness, mental set, and unnecessary constraints.

Irrelevant Information

Irrelevant information is information included in a problem that is not related to or required to solve the problem. Irrelevant information is an issue because people generally believe that they need to use all the information provided in a problem to solve it. However, this is often not the case. To solve problems efficiently, it is necessary to determine what information is relevant.

Consider the problem: 30% of residents in Boston have unlisted telephone numbers. If you randomly select 150 names from the Boston telephone directory, how many of these people would you expect to have unlisted phone numbers? In this problem, the information provided is that 30% of residents have unlisted phone numbers, and 150 names are selected from the Boston telephone book. It can be tempting to think that the answer is just 30% of 150 people (45 people). However, this is not correct. The answer to this problem is actually zero because names taken from a telephone directory  must  have listed numbers. The 30% is a distractor in the problem and is not required to answer the question.

Functional Fixedness

Functional fixedness is the tendency to perceive objects only in terms of their most common uses. For example, in the String Problem depicted in Figure 1 ,  two strings hang from a ceiling and need to be tied together. However, they are too far apart to allow a person to grab one and walk to the other. On the table is a pair of pliers. Most people can’t determine how to utilize the pliers to tie the two strings together because they think of the pliers as a tool to hold, bend, or compress objects.

The String Problem is an example of arrangement problem solving - MCAT Psychology

However, in the solution depicted in Figure 2, it can be seen that there are other ways to use pliers. The pliers can be connected to the string to make a pendulum and swung back and forth to allow someone holding one string to grab the other. By surpassing functional fixedness and being able to utilize objects in less common ways, problem-solving can be made easier.

The solution to the string problem as an example of arrangement problem solving for the MCAT

A mental set is the collection of problem-solving strategies that have worked for a person in the past. Take the Water Jar Problem as an example, where there are three empty water jars that can hold different volumes of fluids. Jar A can hold 37 cups of water, Jar B can hold 12 cups of water, and Jar C can hold five cups of water. The problem’s task involves filling and emptying the jars as many times as necessary to measure out 10 cups of water. The solution is to fill up Jar A with 37 cups of water. This is poured into Jar B, which removes 12 cups of water and leaves 25 cups of water in Jar A. Jar A is then poured into Jar C to remove five cups of water. This is done three times to remove 15 cups of water, leaving 10 cups of water in Jar A.

In trial two of the Water Jar Problem, Jar A can hold 43 cups of water, Jar B can hold nine cups of water, and Jar C can hold four cups of water. The goal is to measure out 22 cups of water. When presented with this problem, most people want to try the same solution that worked for trial one of the problems, allowing them to solve trial two faster. If Jar A is filled with 43 cups of water and poured into Jar B, nine cups of water will be removed, leaving 34 cups in Jar A. If Jar A is poured into Jar C three times, it will get rid of 12 total cups of water, resulting in 22 cups in Jar A.

Trial three of this problem is solved in the same way, and people solve trial three even quicker than the first two trials. Jar A holds 24 cups of water, Jar B holds four cups of water, and Jar C holds three cups of water. The goal is to measure out 11 cups of water. Jar A is filled with 24 cups of water and poured into Jar B to get rid of four cups of water. The remaining 20 cups of water in Jar A is poured into Jar C three times to get rid of nine total cups of water, resulting in the final goal of 11 cups of water.

In trial four of this problem, Jar A can hold 35 cups of water, Jar B can hold 13 cups of water, and Jar C four cups of water with the final goal of having nine cups of water. This is the easiest of the trials. However, after solving the first three trials, most people have a long, difficult time solving this one. This is because they attempt to solve it with the same strategy that worked for the last three trials, filling Jar A with 35 cups of water, pouring it into Jar B to yield 22 cups of water, and then pouring it into Jar C three times. However, this leaves Jar A with 10 cups of water, which is not the goal volume. The answer is simple and involves filling Jar B with 13 cups of water and pouring four cups out into Jar C to end with nine cups of water. Despite this being the simplest trial, mental set causes many to struggle to solve it.

Unnecessary Constraints

An unnecessary constraint is another barrier to effective problem solving and occurs when individuals assume that there are rules that don’t actually exist. For example, in the problem depicted in Figure 1, nine circles need to be connected using four lines. The unnecessary constraint that most people believe is that there is a barrier around the circles that can’t be crossed. With this unnecessary constraint, drawing four lines to connect the nine circles is impossible. However, without this unnecessary constraint, there are several possible solutions, two of which are depicted, demonstrating how problem-solving can be made easier by removing unnecessary constraints.

problem solving mental barriers

To surpass barriers to effective problem solving, such as mental set and unnecessary constraints, it is necessary to think outside of the box and not be restricted to past strategies or constraints that don’t actually exist.

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Barriers to Effective Problem Solving

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Learning how to effectively solve problems is difficult and takes time and continual adaptation. There are several common barriers to successful CPS, including:

  • Confirmation Bias: The tendency to only search for or interpret information that confirms a person’s existing ideas. People misinterpret or disregard data that doesn’t align with their beliefs.
  • Mental Set: People’s inclination to solve problems using the same tactics they have used to solve problems in the past. While this can sometimes be a useful strategy (see Analogical Thinking in a later section), it often limits inventiveness and creativity.
  • Functional Fixedness: This is another form of narrow thinking, where people become “stuck” thinking in a certain way and are unable to be flexible or change perspective.
  • Unnecessary Constraints: When people are overwhelmed with a problem, they can invent and impose additional limits on solution avenues. To avoid doing this, maintain a structured, level-headed approach to evaluating causes, effects, and potential solutions.
  • Groupthink: Be wary of the tendency for group members to agree with each other — this might be out of conflict avoidance, path of least resistance, or fear of speaking up. While this agreeableness might make meetings run smoothly, it can actually stunt creativity and idea generation, therefore limiting the success of your chosen solution.
  • Irrelevant Information: The tendency to pile on multiple problems and factors that may not even be related to the challenge at hand. This can cloud the team’s ability to find direct, targeted solutions.
  • Paradigm Blindness : This is found in people who are unwilling to adapt or change their worldview, outlook on a particular problem, or typical way of processing information. This can erode the effectiveness of problem solving techniques because they are not aware of the narrowness of their thinking, and therefore cannot think or act outside of their comfort zone.

According to Jaffa, the primary barrier of effective problem solving is rigidity. “The most common things people say are, ‘We’ve never done it before,’ or ‘We’ve always done it this way.’” While these feelings are natural, Jaffa explains that this rigid thinking actually precludes teams from identifying creative, inventive solutions that result in the greatest benefit. “The biggest barrier to creative problem solving is a lack of awareness – and commitment to – training employees in state-of-the-art creative problem-solving techniques,” Mattimore explains. “We teach our clients how to use ideation techniques (as many as two-dozen different creative thinking techniques) to help them generate more and better ideas. Ideation techniques use specific and customized stimuli, or ‘thought triggers’ to inspire new thinking and new ideas.” MacLeod adds that ineffective or rushed leadership is another common culprit. “We're always in a rush to fix quickly,” she says. “Sometimes leaders just solve problems themselves, making unilateral decisions to save time. But the investment is well worth it — leaders will have less on their plates if they can teach and eventually trust the team to resolve. Teams feel empowered and engagement and investment increases.”

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Problem-Solving Strategies and Obstacles

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

problem solving mental barriers

Sean is a fact-checker and researcher with experience in sociology, field research, and data analytics.

problem solving mental barriers

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From deciding what to eat for dinner to considering whether it's the right time to buy a house, problem-solving is a large part of our daily lives. Learn some of the problem-solving strategies that exist and how to use them in real life, along with ways to overcome obstacles that are making it harder to resolve the issues you face.

What Is Problem-Solving?

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. Put another way, there is something that we want to occur in our life, yet we are not immediately certain how to make it happen.

Maybe you want a better relationship with your spouse or another family member but you're not sure how to improve it. Or you want to start a business but are unsure what steps to take. Problem-solving helps you figure out how to achieve these desires.

The problem-solving process involves:

  • Discovery of the problem
  • Deciding to tackle the issue
  • Seeking to understand the problem more fully
  • Researching available options or solutions
  • Taking action to resolve the issue

Before problem-solving can occur, it is important to first understand the exact nature of the problem itself. If your understanding of the issue is faulty, your attempts to resolve it will also be incorrect or flawed.

Problem-Solving Mental Processes

Several mental processes are at work during problem-solving. Among them are:

  • Perceptually recognizing the problem
  • Representing the problem in memory
  • Considering relevant information that applies to the problem
  • Identifying different aspects of the problem
  • Labeling and describing the problem

Problem-Solving Strategies

There are many ways to go about solving a problem. Some of these strategies might be used on their own, or you may decide to employ multiple approaches when working to figure out and fix a problem.

An algorithm is a step-by-step procedure that, by following certain "rules" produces a solution. Algorithms are commonly used in mathematics to solve division or multiplication problems. But they can be used in other fields as well.

In psychology, algorithms can be used to help identify individuals with a greater risk of mental health issues. For instance, research suggests that certain algorithms might help us recognize children with an elevated risk of suicide or self-harm.

One benefit of algorithms is that they guarantee an accurate answer. However, they aren't always the best approach to problem-solving, in part because detecting patterns can be incredibly time-consuming.

There are also concerns when machine learning is involved—also known as artificial intelligence (AI)—such as whether they can accurately predict human behaviors.

Heuristics are shortcut strategies that people can use to solve a problem at hand. These "rule of thumb" approaches allow you to simplify complex problems, reducing the total number of possible solutions to a more manageable set.

If you find yourself sitting in a traffic jam, for example, you may quickly consider other routes, taking one to get moving once again. When shopping for a new car, you might think back to a prior experience when negotiating got you a lower price, then employ the same tactics.

While heuristics may be helpful when facing smaller issues, major decisions shouldn't necessarily be made using a shortcut approach. Heuristics also don't guarantee an effective solution, such as when trying to drive around a traffic jam only to find yourself on an equally crowded route.

Trial and Error

A trial-and-error approach to problem-solving involves trying a number of potential solutions to a particular issue, then ruling out those that do not work. If you're not sure whether to buy a shirt in blue or green, for instance, you may try on each before deciding which one to purchase.

This can be a good strategy to use if you have a limited number of solutions available. But if there are many different choices available, narrowing down the possible options using another problem-solving technique can be helpful before attempting trial and error.

In some cases, the solution to a problem can appear as a sudden insight. You are facing an issue in a relationship or your career when, out of nowhere, the solution appears in your mind and you know exactly what to do.

Insight can occur when the problem in front of you is similar to an issue that you've dealt with in the past. Although, you may not recognize what is occurring since the underlying mental processes that lead to insight often happen outside of conscious awareness .

Research indicates that insight is most likely to occur during times when you are alone—such as when going on a walk by yourself, when you're in the shower, or when lying in bed after waking up.

How to Apply Problem-Solving Strategies in Real Life

If you're facing a problem, you can implement one or more of these strategies to find a potential solution. Here's how to use them in real life:

  • Create a flow chart . If you have time, you can take advantage of the algorithm approach to problem-solving by sitting down and making a flow chart of each potential solution, its consequences, and what happens next.
  • Recall your past experiences . When a problem needs to be solved fairly quickly, heuristics may be a better approach. Think back to when you faced a similar issue, then use your knowledge and experience to choose the best option possible.
  • Start trying potential solutions . If your options are limited, start trying them one by one to see which solution is best for achieving your desired goal. If a particular solution doesn't work, move on to the next.
  • Take some time alone . Since insight is often achieved when you're alone, carve out time to be by yourself for a while. The answer to your problem may come to you, seemingly out of the blue, if you spend some time away from others.

Obstacles to Problem-Solving

Problem-solving is not a flawless process as there are a number of obstacles that can interfere with our ability to solve a problem quickly and efficiently. These obstacles include:

  • Assumptions: When dealing with a problem, people can make assumptions about the constraints and obstacles that prevent certain solutions. Thus, they may not even try some potential options.
  • Functional fixedness : This term refers to the tendency to view problems only in their customary manner. Functional fixedness prevents people from fully seeing all of the different options that might be available to find a solution.
  • Irrelevant or misleading information: When trying to solve a problem, it's important to distinguish between information that is relevant to the issue and irrelevant data that can lead to faulty solutions. The more complex the problem, the easier it is to focus on misleading or irrelevant information.
  • Mental set: A mental set is a tendency to only use solutions that have worked in the past rather than looking for alternative ideas. A mental set can work as a heuristic, making it a useful problem-solving tool. However, mental sets can also lead to inflexibility, making it more difficult to find effective solutions.

How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills

In the end, if your goal is to become a better problem-solver, it's helpful to remember that this is a process. Thus, if you want to improve your problem-solving skills, following these steps can help lead you to your solution:

  • Recognize that a problem exists . If you are facing a problem, there are generally signs. For instance, if you have a mental illness , you may experience excessive fear or sadness, mood changes, and changes in sleeping or eating habits. Recognizing these signs can help you realize that an issue exists.
  • Decide to solve the problem . Make a conscious decision to solve the issue at hand. Commit to yourself that you will go through the steps necessary to find a solution.
  • Seek to fully understand the issue . Analyze the problem you face, looking at it from all sides. If your problem is relationship-related, for instance, ask yourself how the other person may be interpreting the issue. You might also consider how your actions might be contributing to the situation.
  • Research potential options . Using the problem-solving strategies mentioned, research potential solutions. Make a list of options, then consider each one individually. What are some pros and cons of taking the available routes? What would you need to do to make them happen?
  • Take action . Select the best solution possible and take action. Action is one of the steps required for change . So, go through the motions needed to resolve the issue.
  • Try another option, if needed . If the solution you chose didn't work, don't give up. Either go through the problem-solving process again or simply try another option.

You can find a way to solve your problems as long as you keep working toward this goal—even if the best solution is simply to let go because no other good solution exists.

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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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  1. Challenge Yourself with Free Daily Crossword Puzzles for Mental Agility

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    The six steps of problem solving involve problem definition, problem analysis, developing possible solutions, selecting a solution, implementing the solution and evaluating the outcome. Problem solving models are used to address issues that...

  4. Barriers to Problem-solving There are numerous obstacles to

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  7. Barriers to Effective Problem Solving

    These four barriers are irrelevant information, functional fixedness, mental set, and unnecessary constraints. Irrelevant Information. Irrelevant information is

  8. Barriers to Effective Problem Solving

    According to Jaffa, the primary barrier of effective problem solving is rigidity. “The most common things people say are, 'We've never done it

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  10. what are the barriers to problem solving in psychology 4 common

    mental set, functional fixedness, confirmation bias, and emotional blocks are four common barriers to problem-solving. They can prevent

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    Disputes. Dilemmas. Obstacles. Troubles. Issues. Headaches. There are more than thirty different ways to call all those unpleasant

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    Mental barriers are a set of limiting beliefs we have about ourselves. If we attach ourselves to these thoughts, they can prevent us from taking

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    A mental set exists when people persist in using problem solving strategies


    Einstellung (or set or mental set) and functional fixedness are classic obstacles to both proper representation and search identified by the Gestalt