By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
While problem-solving, one error that we’ve all almost certainly experienced is our tendency to rely on intuition, a gut feeling or hunch, to make a decision about something or someone. Maybe we meet someone and quickly decide we don’t like them because they ‘rub us the wrong way’. Intuition is similar to the problem-solving strategy of insight in that both involve making a very fast judgment.
Problem-Solving: Trusting Our Gut
Although insight is involved in problem solving, by contrast, intuition is actually much simpler, and yet, easier to get wrong. Intuition is just a ‘yes’ versus ‘no’ judgment: hire this person or not, date this person or not, and so on. Intuition may feel like finding a solution, but it’s really a shortcut that can easily go wrong.
We often pride ourselves on making quick decisions, and ‘trusting our gut’. But this instinct can lead us astray. In a particular high-profile example of the hazards of relying on intuition, a manager at Decca Records had the opportunity to sign an obscure band from Liverpool, England, on New Year’s Day in 1962. But he didn’t offer them a contract, based on his belief that, “Guitar groups are on their way out”, as he told the Beatles’ band manager.
Similarly, unknown author J.K. Rowling’s manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was turned down by 12 publishers. Quick yes versus no judgments can be costly.
A closely related error we make in problem-solving involves not just relying on a gut feeling or hunch, but also actively searching only for information that confirms our initial expectations. This error, known as confirmation bias, leads us to search for information that will confirm that we are right, instead of trying to seek evidence that might refute it.
One example is the so-called Sports Illustrated cover jinx—the belief that being on the cover of Sports Illustrated leads to bad luck. And if one harbors such a belief, they can definitely find examples to support it.
The Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx
An example of this Sports Illustrated cover jinx, can be found in the August of 2017 cover, when the Los Angeles Dodgers featured with the headline reading “Best. Team. Ever?” At the time, the Dodgers had the best streak in baseball since 1912—winning 43 of their late 50 games. But immediately after the cover appeared, the Dodgers lost 17 of their next 22 games.
In another instance, in March of 2018, the Sports Illustrated cover featured a player from the number one seeded UVA basketball team, in the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament , a team that went on to become the first number one seed ever to lose to a number 16 seed. And yet again, in September of 2017, three NFL players were featured on a cover; within the next two months, all three experienced various season-ending injuries.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Ignoring the Overall Picture
But here’s the problem with confirmation bias—we look for information to support it, but we ignore the overall picture and especially all the information that doesn’t support our view. For example, the athlete that has appeared most often on the Sports Illustrated cover is the basketball player, Michael Jordan, who doesn’t seem to have been hurt by this curse.
Confirmation bias also helps explain why voters who support a particular political candidate continue to do so, no matter what. They ignore data about problems with that candidate, or bad decisions he or she made, and instead focus on data that support their initial decision to vote for that person.
The Problem of Fixation
Another common error many of us tend to make is getting locked into our initial guess, and then being unable to see a problem in a new way. This tendency—known as fixation—is why we keep looking for our missing keys in the exact same place. We might have found them in that place before, so we keep returning to it, even when we’ve already checked and realize they are not in fact there this time.
Fixation occurs because we once we’ve used a given strategy in the past, we often get fixated on this same solution, and can’t think of a problem in a new way.
A closely related error, known as functional fixedness, describes our tendency to perceive the functions of objects as fixed and unchanging. For example, one may be in desperate need of a screwdriver but can’t find one and feel stuck. But if we stop thinking about the particular object we need, and instead think of another object to use for the same purpose—maybe a dime or a nail file or a knife—we might well be able to find a good substitute.
This also ultimately forces us to face the larger question about where we focus our thinking. Psychologists describe thinking as forming concepts to organize our world, solve problems, and make judgments and decisions. These concepts are typically based on sensory images, and thus are prone to being false, biased or even completely flawed and are not foolproof.
Common Questions about Errors in Problem-solving
Confirmation bias is one which leads us to search for information that will confirm that we are right, instead of trying to seek evidence that might refute it.
A common error many of us tend to make is getting locked into our initial guess, and then being unable to see a problem in a new way. This tendency—known as fixation—is why we keep looking for our missing keys in the exact same place.
Functional fixedness describes our tendency to perceive the functions of objects as fixed and unchanging.