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Problem Solving

What techniques do we use to solve problems? A look at brainstorming, experimentation, introspection and simulation, with evaluations of each method.

Problem Solving

Problem solving is part of a process that includes finding problems and forming and shaping them. It is a process that requires cognitive function and skills on a mental level. Problem solving happens when intelligence goes from one state of existence to another state of existence, that is desired.

Problem Solving

There are at least six methods that are used to solve problems. Here are some important features of each one.


Often times you may hear about someone turning within themselves. This is a definition of introspection. One examines one's own thoughts and reports back to themselves how they feel. This is also called self-reflection.


Many behaviorists reject this as a valid method for problem solving. They point out that it is impossible to be objective about any type of situation2. Cognitive theorists believe in the scientific method for problem solving but do not agree with introspection as a way to solve problems.


Often times, problems can be solved by simulating the actual event. This is very helpful for training methods, too. For example, a pilot can fly a simulated air craft will all sorts of problems. If he makes a mistake in the simulator, he will not have to worry about the lives of hundreds of people, including himself. Many of these problems may be preventative in nature, but they can save many lives.

Some may believe that simulated conditions can be taken too far and there is no substitute for the real thing. In some cases, this may be true, but there are many practical purposes for simulated problem solving, today.


Behaviorism is also referred to as a learning perspective. It teaches that all physical type of action is some kind of behavior. B.F. Skinner developed what is known as radical behaviorism. This form of behaviorism accepts introspective as a form of analysis. Though he does not accept it as a problem solving method, it is still regarded as a tool.

Although behaviorism relies upon conditioning to solve problems, it can be effective. For example, if your dog needs to be house trained, you can condition him to use the outdoors, instead of the floor. This will solve a messy problem.

Criticism of Behaviorism for Problem Solving

Behaviorism is somewhat limited on problem solving. Many emotional issues will not be solved this way. Yet, it has many possible training benefits.


Experimentation is often used in the field of psychology. It is part of the scientific method4. It is part of problem solving that has been used for many years in one way or another. One does not have to be a scientist or clinical psychologist to use this method of problem solving.

For example, a woman may have a problem that her kids do not like her cooking. She may experiment with different recipes to find something that they like.

A lot of this is trial and error, but it has brought about a lot of great things. Many famous inventions would not be possible if not for experimentation.

The first step of an experiment is observation. After the observation, there is a problem or an unknown. After the unknown, there may be a hypothesis formed. The experiment may be conducted to test the hypothesis.

Often time, results of experiments can be inconclusive. This is why they may often have to be repeated.

Criticism of Experiments

Experiments can often be hit and miss. They may or may not be an effective problem solving technique.


This is a common method that is used to solve many problems. It involves the use of more than one mind that is working on a single solution to a problem. This is the common reasoning behind think tanks.

Whenever a company or corporation holds a "meeting" they are taking advantage to this type of problem solving method.

Brainstorming Rules
  1. It is very important to clearly define the problem, before the brainstorming technique starts. If the problem is multifaceted, it should be broken down into smaller parts to deal with.
  2. A note on the background of the problem should be given to all of the participants. This should be done as far ahead as possible. It gives everyone time to think about it.
  3. The group must be chosen carefully. One person should be there to take notes or write on a chalkboard.
  4. The person in charge needs to make up an important list of questions. They all should have to do with one particular problem.

This is simply an overview of the brainstorming technique. However, it should give you an idea of how it is used. It is often used with a great deal of success, in some cases.

Criticism of Brainstorming

It cannot be done alone. It must be conducted in an environment that is conducive to creative thinking and not everyone will be successful.

Lateral Thinking

This term was first mentioned by Edward de Bono6. His approach is said to be creative and at the same time, indirect. He uses four tools in his approach.

  1. Tools to generate random ideas. Pick an item in the room and think about it. It can be a noun or anything that you wish. Try to associate it with your problem and solution.
  2. Tools to broaden the spectrum of searching for new ideas. This may involve exaggeration or wishful thinking.
  3. Challenge things and ask why. Look at something and ask why it is that way. It can be anything.
  4. Tools of treatment. These are not creative, but take real world issues into account.
Evaluation of Problem Solving Methods
  • Problem solving includes finding and identifying problems. It requires mental faculties to move from one state to another.
  • Introspection involves taking stock of one's self. It is also called self-examination.
  • Simulation is a great teaching tool for important jobs like pilots.
  • Behaviorism uses conditioning to solve certain issues.
  • Experimenting is how many famous inventions have been created.
  • Brainstorming and lateral thinking are not often considered but can be very effective. All of these methods have a place in modern problem solving an should be considered useful.
  1. Wilson, Robert Andrew; Keil, Frank C. (Eds.) (2001). The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (MITECS). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
  2. Nisbett, Richard E.; Timothy D. Wilson (1977). "Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes". Psychological Review 8: 231–259., reprinted in David Lewis Hamilton, ed (2005).
  3. Skinner, B.F. (16 April 1984). "The operational analysis of psychological terms". Behavioral and brain sciences(Print) 7 (4): 547–581. Retrieved 2008-01-10.
  4. Griffith, W. Thomas. The Physics of Everyday Phenomena: A Conceptual Introduction to Physics. Page 3. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. 2001.
  5. Osborn, A.F. (1963) Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving (Third Revised Edition). New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Son.
  6. The Use of Lateral Thinking (1967) ISBN 0-14-013788-2.
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