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Summary: Thinking and Problem Solving

With the spread of brain scanning technology, researchers increasingly regard thinking as a biological activity. Scans show that widespread but highly specific areas of the brain are involved in different types of thinking. The executive processes, headquartered in the frontal lobes, are important in guiding the activity, but (like the executive of a corporation) they do not perform much of the actual work.

The train of thought can flow smoothly, or it can be derailed by surprises and impediments. Such impasses are revealed by a variety of biological and behavioral indicators such as facial expression. Ordinarily, focused attention is confined to a relatively limited amount of content, and psychologists have studied the problem of selective attention. Evidence indicates that information outside of focused attention is indeed processed for meaning, but it is included in conscious thought only when it is relevant...a judgment that must be made by unconscious processes that occur in a parallel process preceding focused attention.

Simon (1981) pointed out that all cognitive activity requires some form of problem solving. The modern era of research on problem solving began with a computer program, the General Problem Solver (GPS). The GPS portrayed a problem as a space. A person would start at point A, and their goal was to get to point B (which represents solving the problem). The main tactic was hill-climbing or taking little steps toward the goal, although more sophisticated problem-solving problems must look ahead to anticipate impasses that complicate such a direct approach.

Wickelgren listed a variety of approaches to solving problems, such as making sub-goals, working backward from a goal to means of achieving it, or borrowing a solution from a different problem. Another general-purpose technique is to list the constraints or requirements of a problem-solving situation then seek a solution satisfying a maximum number of constraints. Such a solution is likely to be esthetically satisfying.

An expert is a person with a great deal of specialized knowledge relevant to a particular area of interest or domain. For example, a chess expert may be familiar with 10,000 to 100,000 distinct patterns of chess pieces on a chessboard. Expert systems are programs that simulate the behavior of an expert by asking questions and guiding a user to solutions.

The computer program SOAR was an attempt to combine previously known problem solving techniques into one system. The key to SOAR was universal sub-goaling. Each difficulty is treated as a new problem in itself: a sub-goal to be solved. Some form of universal sub-goaling will probably be part of successful problem solving programs in the future.

Cognitive style is the phrase used to describe habitual patterns of thinking. A common distinction is made between analytic and holistic styles of thought. Analytic thinking is typically more valued in the educational system, although holistic thinking may be important for social competence.

One way to improve intelligence is to develop metacognitive skills. Metacognition is "thinking about thinking" or becoming aware of the nature of one's own thought processes. Double-checking is a simple form of metacognitive activity. Students who do poorly in school typically show very little self-checking; they are more likely to show one-shot thinking in which they answer quickly and stick with their first answer. When students are taught to slow down and test their own answers, their performances usually improve.

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