The field of psychology has identified a variety of mental shortcuts which we all tend to use when thinking and trying to solve our many problems. However, unfortunately at times, these very helpful shortcuts can lead us into making certain characteristic errors. Then, should we avoid them altogether? Or, tread with caution?
Using an Algorithm
Cognitive psychology has identified various strategies for solving problems. One approach is to use an algorithm, meaning a logical rule or procedure that guarantees solving a type of problem. So, if one is asked to divide 500 by 4, we could use the algorithm we’ve learned to solve long division problems—a process that would work for any numbers, no matter how complex.
This is also a very distinct advantage of an algorithm: it will always work to get us a correct answer. But it also has a downside; it’s time-consuming, and it may be very inefficient.
Let’s take an example where an algorithm is not the best choice. Take a series of letters that can be rearranged to form a word—SPL-OY-OC-HYG. Feel free to pause briefly, about 10 seconds, and try to figure out what this word is. The answer is PSYCHOLOGY.
Shortcuts in Our Thinking
One can solve this without the use of an algorithm. Why? Because a few seconds is not enough time to use an algorithm. With unlimited time, one could solve this problem using an algorithm, which in this case, might involve trying every single combination of each letter in each position. This process would generate 907,208 different combinations, making it time-consuming and inefficient.
Instead of using an algorithm, we often use shortcuts in our thinking. For example, you might have looked at that set of letters, and then kind of randomly guessed a few words that seemed plausible to see if they worked. This strategy—trial and error—involves attempting different solutions to see if one might work. This strategy can work and even be more efficient than an algorithm, but of course it’s not guaranteed.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Another problem-solving strategy that is also designed to be faster than an algorithm is a heuristic. Heuristics are basically educated guesses, based on general knowledge of the world, which can help us solve problems faster. For example, heuristics can narrow down what we try when attempting to unscramble the letters that spell psychology. We probably skip any combinations that never appear in any words we can think of; for example, we can skip two YYs in back to back combination, and any words that start YP or YG.
But heuristics can also lead us astray. If one asks which city is further west, Reno, Nevada or Los Angeles, California, which would be our guess? Most people would say Los Angeles. This is an educated guess, which relies on what we know: LA is in California and touches water on the West Coast, whereas Reno is in Nevada, which is to the east of California. But this guess is in fact wrong: Reno is actually further west than Los Angeles.
Problem-solving Through Insight
That brings us to the final problem-solving approach that we can use—insight, meaning a sudden realization of the solution to a problem. For example, we might have started solving the psychology anagram with trial and error, and been aware of some heuristics, but if we found the solution, it was probably by insight. We felt like the answer just came to us.
Here’s another example of a problem in which insight is needed: An influential Arab sheikh decides to hold a competition to see which one of his two sons will inherit his substantial fortune. He tells them to race their camels to a distant city, but the one whose camel arrives last will inherit the fortune.
The two sons set out, determined to win the inheritance, and wander the desert for days, each attempting to outlast the other. Finally, they come across a wise man and ask him for advice. After the wise man speaks to the two sons, they immediately jump on the camels and race at full gallop to the target city. What two words do you think the wise man said? He said, “Switch camels”.
Again one might have guessed this or not, but the key point here is that there’s no strategy for looking at all the options we can use to get this right. It’s not feasible to try all different two-word combinations in the English language.
What we need in this case, and what the sons needed, was ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, something that allows us to question the assumption that they have to ride their own camels.
Such insights arrive in a way that is largely, or even entirely, unconscious. That’s why it can sometimes be helpful to set a problem aside, for an incubation period, after which the solution may emerge without additional conscious thought.
Needless to say, these problem-solving strategies can all be useful in daily life. However, choosing the correct one, while being fully aware of its limitations, is a challenge.
Common Questions about the Different Problem-solving Strategies
There is a very distinct advantage of an algorithm in problem-solving: it will always work to get you a correct answer. But it also has a downside; it’s time-consuming, and it may be very inefficient.
A problem-solving strategy that is also designed to be faster than an algorithm is a heuristic. Heuristics are basically educated guesses, based on general knowledge of the world, which can help us solve problems faster.
A problem-solving approach that we can use is insight, meaning a sudden realization of the solution to a problem.