Dr. Mark L. Mitchell

The Five Ordered Steps of Problem-Solving

I. Define problem

A. Why this step is the most important step.

B. Three pitfalls in defining the problem.

1. Defining the problem too narrowly

            Ways to avoid defining the problem too narrowly

             A longer look at reframing the problem

2.  Finding the source of the problem

Two reasons we have difficulty with this step:

a. Not taking responsibility for our role ("Look at what you made me do!")

b. In our chaotic, complex world, Isolating the cause of an effect is difficult

3. We may think we have one type of problem when we really have another

              Example: What is the  order of these numbers?    8,5, 4, 9, 1, 6, 7, 10, 3, 2?

II. Generate solutions

A. Using existing solutions:

1. Algorithms: a problem-solving strategy that--if all the steps are followed--is guaranteed to eventually lead to a solution.

Two problems with algorithms:

1. They involve many steps

2. They only fit problems where there is one right answer. Thus, there are algorithms for solving some math problems and playing certain simple games, but not for problems with human relationships.

2. Heuristics: a general rule that guides problem-solving, but does not guarantee a perfect solution. (Click here for a weather-related heuristic.)

One type: The representativeness heuristic:

a general rule used when people decide whether something is a typical case. If the target matches their memory of a typical instance, they will decide that the target is a typical case.

Examples of the representativeness heuristic:



B. Barriers to generating new solutions

1. Set: a rigidity in problem-solving due to wanting to continue to do things the old way.


Functional fixedness: a form of set where we consider only the usual function of an object and overlook other possible uses.

2. STM's limits

III. Evaluate alternatives

Why we "satisfice" (choose the first satisfactory option)

rather than "optimize" (choose the best [optimum] option)

What it takes to optimize:

1. Consider all the options

2. Consider all the pros and cons of all the options

3.  Correctly weight all those pros and cons

4. Combine all the  information about the pros and cons of all the options to arrive at the best (optimal) choice


Table illustrating complexity of making an optimal choice: An oversimplified example of choosing among apartments. Note that there are probably more than 3 places that you could consider and that you probably care about more than price, proximity to campus, and landlord. For example, you probably care about how quiet it is, how safe it is, how big it is, and how nice it is. However, even this oversimplified example shows you how complicated optimizing is.


Options Price Score on Price Price's Importance Location Location's Score Location's Importance Landlord's Reputation Landlord's Score Landlord's ImportanceTotal score
1 500/month 3 4 2 miles from campus 2 2 Excellent 5 4 36 (3 * 4) + (2 * 2) + (5 * 4)
2 400/month 4 4 5 miles from campus 1 2 Average 3 4 30 (4 * 4) + (1 * 2) + (3 * 4)
3 700/month 1 4 next to campus 5 2 Poor 1 4 18 (1 * 4) + (5 * 2) + (1 * 4)

Why we fail to optimize (besides the fact that optimizing is stressful):

1. Because of the limits of STM, we do poorly at:

Considering all the options

Considering all the pros and cons of each option

Combining all that information

To get around some of the limits of short-term memory, you might just write down all your options as well as their pros and cons.

To get around more of the limits of short-term memory, you could use this decision making program to help you make decisions.

2. Because we rely on the availability heuristic

(which should have been called the accessibility heuristic), we are bad at estimating the frequency of events. That is, we estimate how often something happens based on how easy it is to remember examples of that event occurring. The problem is that some events, even if they don't occur very often, are easy to recall (airplane crashes).

(If you came here from reading about the survey, click here to return )

3. We are vulnerable to framing effects (the way the problem is worded affects the decision that we will make) because we are loss adverse: we hate to think that we might lose something. We like to gain, but we HATE to lose. Insurance companies and bankers love us for this.

IV. Act

V. Evaluate

By now, you should be able to:

  1. List the 5 steps of the problem solving model.

  2. Explain why defining the problem is the most important step in problem solving.

  3. Give at least one example of a "problem" that our society may have incorrectly defined.

  4. Explain three errors that people commonly make in defining a problem.

  5. Describe how expert problem solvers differ from non-expert problem solvers.

  6. Describe the difference between algorithms and heuristics.

  7. Give two reasons why people tend to use heuristics rather than algorithms.

  8. Describe the advantages and disadvantages of using the representativeness heuristic.

  9. Describe the phenomenon of "set."

  10. Explain how functional fixedness is a particular type of set .

  11. Explain why STM's limitations interfere with our ability to generate solutions to problems.

  12. Explain why people satisfice rather than optimize.

  13. Tell someone a strategy they could use so that they could optimize.

  14. Explain why knowing the probability of different outcomes is essential to being able to make the best choice among alternatives.

  15. Explain how the availability heuristic may cause us to make poor decisions.

  16. Explain how people can persuade us to do things by taking advantage of framing effects.
  17. See how we can use computers to get around our llmited ability to realize how much we should weight information.
  18. Consult a decision-making site (like this one) to get some tips on how to make better decisions.
  19. Use this decision making program to get around some of STM problems that limit decision making.


Dr. Mark L. Mitchell

General Psychology


0. Overview

A. The importance of creativity

B. How can you become more creative?



C. The 5 steps

1. Preparation

2. Incubation

3. Illumination

4. Evaluation

5. Revision

Step 1. Preparation

What are you preparing to do?

Combine old ideas in new ways

How can you prepare yourself?




2. Use techniques to get create new gestalts


#1 Attribute listing

Create your own credit card by choosing from the list of 4 attributes (based on an exercise devised by Dr. Tony Grasha).

(If you came from the Perception lecture, click here to get back.)

#2 Analogies

#3 The dictionary

Implications of the need for preparation for the creative personality






Step 2. Incubation

When it works

After preparation--not instead of.

Why it works

1. We want to "forget" our old approach to the problem. That is, we want to free ourselves from the old set.


Implications for the creative personality

Step 3. Illumination

Step 4. Evaluation

at the proper time

Importance of Evaluation

Importance of evaluating at the proper time

1. Delayed evaluation may allow you to explore and develop an idea that may be closer to a good idea than you initially think.

2. Delayed evaluation is the key to brainstorming.

Implications for the creative personality:



Step 5. Revision

Why people don't know about revision

Implications of the need for revision for the creative personality




By now, you should be able to:

  1. List the five steps of the creative process.

  2. Explain what creativity is.

  3. Give two reasons why preparation is vital for creativity.

  4. Explain why learning "irrelevant information" helps creativity.

  5. Describe attribute listing.

  6. Give two possible explanations for why incubation seems to work.

  7. Explain why evaluation helps creativity, but only when it is done at the proper time.

  8. Explain why the myth of the lazy, unambitious, unfocused, aimless creative type is false.

  9. Explain why there is some truth to the idea that creative types are moderately intelligent, messy, nonconformists who sometimes have outrageous thoughts.

  10. Explain why creative people tend to be more open to new experiences, less conventional, more self-confidence, more driven, more ambitious, and more hostile (Feist, 1998) than most people.

  11. List at least four things you can do to become more creative.

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