Advice for Human Problem Solvers

Cognitive psychologist Wayne Wickelgren wrote a little book called How to Solve Problems (1974). It was based on a popular course on problem solving which he developed at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The aim of the course was to make problem-solving principles useful for students. Here is a summary of the principles he developed. Of course, this summary is very compressed. Professor Wickelgren spent a whole semester conveying these points.

1. Use inference. The information required to solve a problem is probably hidden, otherwise it would not be a problem. Look for the unspoken or unwritten solutions that are not open and obvious. You can usually assume that a puzzle such as the "9 dot" problem will not yield to the most obvious approach and will require some "angle" or "trick." This information is not provided to you as a puzzle solver, but you can infer it from the fact that the problem usually not easy to solve.

Why is it helpful to classify action sequences?

2. Classify action sequences. . This means that you examine the actions required to accomplish a goal, put the actions into different categories, and generate more possibilities in each of those categories. Try different variations as needed to accomplish the goal.

For example, on the way to getting an A grade on a test, you must set up a schedule, find an environemnt to study, do the studying itself, and get into the best state of mind before the test. This analysis yeilds four sets of action sequences. You could generate new ways to tackle each component, such as (a) variations in time management (altering your schedule, setting aside times to study, etc.), (b) variations in environment (you might try the library, or a quiet room), or (c) variations in study tactics (write out answers, or read more slowly, or read more than once), or (d) variations in test-day tactics (relaxing yourself before a test, getting a good sleep the night before, preparing yourself with helpful self-coaching statements).

3. Do "hill climbing." Hill climbing occurs when you keep a goal in mind and approach it step by step. It is a long-term strategy for accomplishing a larger goal by performing smaller actions that move you in the right direction. For example, a successful diet or exercise program requires many small decisions and actions that lead in the same direction.

What are common examples of hill climbing and subgoaling in everyday life?

4. Make subgoals. A student might have to take a few lower-level courses to strengthen basic skills, before tackling a tough course in the major. Often problems are best solved by breaking them into pieces and trying to solve each piece of the problem by itself.

What are three pieces of advice from Wickelgren that all involve taking a different perspective on a problem?

5. Try contradiction. Remember William James's advice, "Cultivate the habit of seeing the alternative." When stuck on a problem, sometimes it helps to seek an alternative approach, or consider an opposite viewpoint.

6. Try working backward. Sometimes a problem is easier to solve if you start with the goal, then work backwards from it, asking what step comes right before the goal is attained, then what step comes before that one, and so forth. Similarly, it is often easier to solve a paper and pencil maze by starting at the end and working backward toward the beginning. Writers of detective stories commonly start with a conclusion in mind, then write a story that leads to it.

7. Seek relations between different problems. A solution to a problem might be discovered by examining similar problems that have been solved in the past. Consulting an expert often helps, because the expert is likely to be acquainted with a wide range of similar situations and can point out a relevant case history or example.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey