How Do We Solve Problems?
Problem solving can be understood similarly as goal-setting. Whenever we solve problems, we often frame the problem as a "how"; for example, "How can I get a better grade in school?", "How can I avoid getting late?", "How can I attract this girl's attention?" Whenever we attempt to find a solution to a problem, we always have a vague idea of what the end-point or the goal should be. Thus, psychologists have agreed that problem solving can best be defined as an attempt or a series of attempts to identify ways to reach a goal. If the goal is readily available, there could never be an attempt, and the "problem" cannot be considered a problem at all.
Problem solving oftentimes is related to concept formation. Whenever we solve problems, we usually identify and utilize concepts as well. For example, William Eno, considered as the father of traffic safety, conceptualized first about traffic symbols before he was able to utilize those concepts when he proposed the solution to traffic congestion and traffic accidents. By forming the concepts of "stop", "wait", and "go" into concrete symbols, he was able to visualize the flow of traffic in both an organized and systematic way.
Problem Solving Steps
Research in psychology have shown that how we solve problems generally runs in a series of steps. First, we identify the problem. Second, we look for ways to solve the problem. Third, we evaluate the effectiveness of the identified solution. Lastly, we refine the problem and the solutions. Because of the nature of how we solve problems, instead of attempting to change the process, psychologists proposed better ways to improve our skills every step of the way.
- Identify the problem. History have shown that the best solutions actually springs when the problem started unthinkably with stupid questions. Bill Bowerman, inventor of Nike shoes, asked, "What happens if I pour rubber over a waffle iron?" Fred Smith, founder of Federal Express, asked, "Why can't there be reliable overnight mail service?", and yet got a C in his paper back when he was still in Yale University. Godfrey Hounsfield, the inventor of CT scan, asked, "Why can't we see in three dimensions what is inside the human body without cutting it open?" Lastly, Masaru Ibuka, honorary chairman of Sony, asked, "Why don't we remove the recording function and the speaker from the portable music player and put the headphones directly on the player?" As you can see, creativity is of utmost importance when identifying the problem. Most of the time, we wouldn't even know that there is a problem until we ask questions. Unfortunately, even the educational system is guilty of not encouraging this primary step in problem solving. The school curriculum often proceeds to handing out the problems with minimal effort and then just guiding the students the appropriate ways of solving them. Additionally, the corporate world is guilty of discouraging problem identification as well. Fortunately, the "Whistle-Blower Protection Act" is now in place to help protect employees who identify problems in their company.
- Develop strategies. The strategies that we choose to solve the problem largely depends on the kind of problem that was identified. There are three types of strategies that we often use to solve our problems. (a) Subgoaling is setting intermediate goals until the main goal is reached. For example, when writing for a school paper, we often do it one goal after another - identify the topic, make a workable outline, enlist references, gather data, write a draft, then write the final paper. Subgoaling is identifying exactly what the goal is and mentally working backwards up to the initial state, and then executively working forward to reach the final goal one subgoal at a time. The good thing about subgoaling is that it can easily predict an accurate timescale to work on and reach the goal. It is also useful when identifying one's progress. The problem is that identifying subgoals is often very difficult to do, especially if the goal is not clearly identified, the problem not specifically formed, and the obstacles not foreseen. Subgoaling also requires a lot of discipline and persistence to work things out according to what is planned. (b) Algorithms are strategies that have been used and proven effective before, and as such, guarantee solution to similar problems. Algorithms include formulas, recipes, and instructions. It also involves testing all the available solutions. For example, puzzles are inherently algorithmic. When solving crossword puzzles and sudokus, for instance, you can opt to try all possible word and number series, and trying them all will definitely guarantee a solution, but that will also take a lot of time and effort. Fortunately, you can adopt another algorithm in which you utilize the hints already given out in the puzzle and then use your answers as further hints to narrow down the list of next possible answers. This is done by identifying what are not possible and thus eliminating the "possible" answers to a workable solution. (c) Heuristics are guidelines that suggest, but does not guarantee, solutions. This is often used in the real world, when not just the goal, but also the strategies, are not readily available. We use heuristics when we adopt what other people do when they themselves don't also know why their "technique" is effective. For example, you may follow what your mother used to do to you when you're sick because it helps you get well, but you don't why it works, but you do it anyway since it works. This is also the reason why superstitions, horoscopes, and numerology still pervades the society today. We haven't fully understood the workings of the world that we live in. People who don't grasp sufficient appreciation of science and the scientific method are often the ones who resort to superstitious beliefs when trying to solve a problem.
- Evaluate solutions. After using the available possible strategies to solve the problem, in the end, it all boils down to how effective the strategies are. Depending on the nature of the problem, we have our own subjective, sometimes even vague, criteria in evaluating the effectiveness of a strategy. Most of the time, if the strategy finally achieves the goal, we don't anymore extend some effort in evaluating its effectiveness. However, psychologists have come to know that carefully evaluating the strategies entails an objective insight by which to measure their effectiveness. For instance, if the problem is that you're hungry, you may generate the following strategies: buy food, beg for food, look for available food, or use "mind over matter". All these could potentially satisfy your hunger; but how would you know if you're not anymore hungry? Most would say, "You'll just feel it." This is not an issue with normal people. However, how about the overweight and the obese, or the underweight and malnourished? Obese people have a tendency to overeat when they rely too much on how they feel; they would benefit more by counting their calories and physical activities. Similarly, underweights tend to feel full despite low calorie intake, in which case, they'll need to eat more even if they feel full. Additionally, the type of food eaten also needs to be taken into consideration. For example, are you really hungry, or are you just craving for some sweets or some carbohydrates? Identifying carefully and specifically how the strategies we employ live up to the expected goal or criterion requires an active understanding of the criterion itself, and careful measurement of how precisely the strategies align to the criterion. Without clear criterion, you wouldn't know if you have indeed solved the problem or not.
- Redefine problems and solutions. We are naturally born to improve on our past mistakes. This is how we sometimes learn. Most of the time, however, we tend to be limited in perspective and blame one aspect of problem solving while ignoring the others. For example, if the solution is not good enough, we tend to blame it on the problem ("This problem is just too difficult."), the strategies ("I am just incompetent and don't know what to do."), or the criterion ("It's just impossible to reach the goal; the standard is just too high."). Despite the obvious problem in these kinds of thinking, they're still actually good indicators that we strive to rethink the problems and the solutions by identifying where the fault could be lying. However, most of the time, we don't go beyond blaming, and we just get stuck on pointing where the fault is. Psychologists recommend that we have to critically examine all the aspects, recognize faults in them, and change them. Even if the problem has been solved, rethinking about the process can also help us improve our problem solving skills.
Problem Solving Obstacles
Besides the actual external obstacles that we may face when trying to solve a problem, there are still obstacles within ourselves that we need to keep in check. These internal obstacles include being fixated, either to a tool's pre-determined function (e.g., using a hammer as a pendulum) or our own mental set of previous strategies that used to work; lacking internal motivation, that is, not being determined and persistent to follow through the outlined strategies; and, being unable to control emotions. Controlling one's emotions is critical to problem solving because it can either facilitate or inhibit you as the problem solver; and because problem solving requires full concentration on the problem, the strategies, and the solutions, leaving no room for calculating the vagueness and subjectivity of emotions.
Problem Solving Experts
Experts on problem solving tend to master their domain or field of interest. Their knowledge base for that particular domain is enormous in scope that their knowledge units are utilized to act as short-cuts when finding solutions to complex problems. To illustrate, let's use cooking as a basic example. Suppose it's your first time to bake a cake, but you know fully well how to cook dishes, but just not baking. You then decided to give baking a try. You may spend 3 hours or more understanding the recipe (especially the terms in it), procuring the ingredients and the baking utensils, and baking the cake itself. Compare the amount of effor you put through to someone who hasn't cooked before. Compare yourself as well to someone who was able to bake a cupcake before but not necessarily a cake. Knowing the basics and having enough experience makes an expert. No matter how inherently gifted a person is in cooking, if he or she doesn't have a basic understanding of what to do, nor sufficient experience on "cooking", then he or she can never be considered an expert on cooking.