The Psychology of Problem Solving

Problem solving consists of using generic or ad hoc methods in an orderly manner for finding solutions to problems.

In Psychology, problem solving refers to a state of desire for reaching a definite goal from a present condition that either is not directly moving toward the goal, is far from it or needs more complex logic for finding a missing description of conditions or steps toward the goal.

According to research, problem solving is a cycle that includes the following phases
1. Recognize or identify the real problem
2. Define the problem and determine its limits
3. Develop a solution strategy
4. Organize knowledge about the problem
5. Allocate and use available mental and physical resources
6. Monitor progress toward the solution
7. Evaluate the solution for accuracy


Ex #1: Read Early & Often
During the stage of our kids life when they were learning to read, my wife and I would sit down with each of our kids to listen to them read. We wanted to ensure that they could articulate what they were seeing. They each had one thing in common when they began reading … they all substituted their own words into the story. Our mantra was “you need to read the actual words that are on the page.”

Ex #2: CSI
Every investigation begins first with the team gathering the facts. No assumptions allowed. No guessing. Hypothesizing, Yes. Extrapolating, Yes. Examining, Yes. Analyzing, Yes.

The investigators take pictures of the scene from various angles, up close, far away, etc., dust for fingerprints, take samples, look in nooks and crannies, etc.

They bring what they can back to the office and post things on the wall, diagram on the whiteboard, etc.. They talk it through as a team and feed off each others ideas to build a profile of the killer.

Who is the face behind these actions? Professional? Family life? Friendships? Habits? Restaurants? Following this process helps them eventually apprehend their list of suspects and finally the villain.

Ex #3: Programming
Every programmer eventually arrives at the conclusion that to be successful in programming RPG, C++, Java, Ruby, Javascript, .Net, etc., you need to program according to the syntax and flow of the language being used. Substituting our own words for the commands and including the exact statements used in C++ in a .Net program will NOT work.

We have to conform to the language at hand. We have to understand the programming syntax and the process flow if we are to be successful. No matter how much brain power is put forth, the reality is that my thinking must conform to what is at hand. My grandest assumptions will not magically make things work.

Trying the same strategy for testing a piece of code and expecting different results truly is the definition of insanity.

Grow Roots of Wisdom
As we mature in age, our thinking and methods need to mature as well.
– Through our trials and efforts, we gain experiences.
– Through our experiences, we learn.
– Through our learning, we gain wisdom.

We must read the words that are on the page. No substitutes.
We must set aside assumptions of the past. Examine the facts.
We must not get upset and throw a tantrum. This is not personal.
We need to get a perspective. See the forest from the trees.

Problem Solving is simply leaving our bias behind, looking at the facts and piecing the evidence together to explain an outcome; similar to a puzzle.

Additional Resources

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