Problem solving

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Problem solving - short version

A team working together, following a structured process, to remedy a situation that caused a deviation from a norm.

Problem solving - long version

Problem solving is a mental process and is part of the larger problem process that includes problem finding and problem shaping. Considered the most complex of all intellectual functions, problem solving has been defined as higher-order cognitive process that requires the modulation and control of more routine or fundamental skills. Problem solving occurs when an organism or an artificial intelligence system needs to move from a given state to a desired goal state.


The nature of human problem solving methods has been studied by psychologists over the past hundred years. There are several methods of studying problem solving, including; introspection, behaviorism, simulation, computer modeling and experiment.

Beginning with the early experimental work of the Gestaltists in Germany (e.g. Duncker, 1935), and continuing through the 1960s and early 1970s, research on problem solving typically conducted relatively simple, laboratory tasks (e.g. Duncker's "X-ray" problem; Ewert & Lambert's 1932 "disk" problem, later known as Tower of Hanoi) that appeared novel to participants (e.g. Mayer, 1992). Various reasons account for the choice of simple novel tasks: they had clearly defined optimal solutions, they were solvable within a relatively short time frame, researchers could trace participants' problem-solving steps, and so on. The researchers made the underlying assumption, of course, that simple tasks such as the Tower of Hanoi captured the main properties of "real world" problems, and that the cognitive processes underlying participants' attempts to solve simple problems were representative of the processes engaged in when solving "real world" problems. Thus researchers used simple problems for reasons of convenience, and thought generalizations to more complex problems would become possible. Perhaps the best-known and most impressive example of this line of research remains the work by Allen Newell and Herbert Simon.

Simple laboratory-based tasks may be useful in explicating the steps of logic and reasoning that underlie problem solving; however, they omit the complexity and emotional valence of "real-world" problems. In clinical psychology, researchers have focused on the role of emotions in problem solving (D'Zurilla & Goldfried, 1971; D'Zurilla & Nezu, 1982), demonstrating that poor emotional control can disrupt focus on the target task and impede problem resolution (Rath, Langenbahn, Simon, Sherr, & Diller, 2004). In this conceptualization, human problem solving consists of two related processes: problem orientation, the motivational/attitudinal/affective approach to problematic situations and problem-solving skills, the actual cognitive-behavioral steps, which, if successfully implemented, lead to effective problem resolution. Working with individuals with frontal lobe injuries, neuropsychologists have discovered that deficits in emotional control and reasoning can be remediated, improving the capacity of injured persons to resolve everyday problems successfully (Rath, Simon, Langenbahn, Sherr, & Diller, 2003).



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