Problem Solving and Reasoning

The abilities of human beings and other animals to solve problems and the ways in which they go about it have been of interest to psychologists for many decades. Some of the earliest studies of problem solving were conducted by the Gestalt psychologists, but the topic was also of concern to behaviorists. Experiments on the interference effects of mental sets, such as the inability to perceive an object as having anything other than its customary function (functional fixedness ), is one of the topics on which a great deal of research has been conducted. The technique of brainstorming, which consists of a "green light" stage in which many possible solutions are suggested, and a "red light" stage in which each solution is evaluated, was proposed as a procedure for breaking up mental sets in group problem solving (Osborn, 1953). Also of interest to researchers and practitioners were stage or step theories of problem solving, one popular example being the four-stage sequence of preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification (Wallas, 1926).

The traditional approach to solving problems follows a scientific reasoning procedure: (1) The problem arises, (2) relevant known information is collected, (3) a hypothesis (potential solution) is proposed, (4) the hypothesis is tested, (5) the hypothesis is affirmed or disconfirmed. This sequence of steps is, of course, not a one-way street. In actual practice, there is a great deal of back-and-forth movement between steps.

Scientific reasoning is an example of logical reasoning, which may be either deductive or inductive. In deductive reasoning, or syllogistic reasoning, we begin with a generalization and deduce a particularity (e.g., all men are mortal; John is a man; therefore, John is mortal). Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, begins with a particular instance or example and infers a general conclusions from it. A favorite, though perhaps fictitious, example of inductive reasoning is Isaac Newton's induction of the principle of gravity from the experience of being hit on the head by a falling apple. Hundreds of studies have been conducted on the abilities of children and adults to reason deductively and inductively, frequently with disappointing results. The atmosphere or context of the problem about which the person is asked to reason can have a strong interfering effect on the accuracy of the reasoning process.

As on intelligence tests, performance on problem-solving or reasoning tasks declines with age (Giambra & Arenberg, 1980; Rabbitt, 1977). Older adults are slower in solving complex problems, require more assistance to find a solution, and are less flexible in using the information provided. Age decrements in problem-solving ability are more apparent when a great deal of information must be kept in mind in order to discover a solution.

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