The Five Ordered Steps of Problem-Solving

Step 1: Define the problem.

Why is defining the problem the most important step?

Because defining the problem defines the solution. That is, the diagnosis determines the treatment. For example, if you are diagnosed with the flu, you get a different treatment than if you are diagnosed with a cold.

Quotes illustrating the importance of defining the problem:

• "If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions." --unknown, but often attributed to Albert Einstein
• "If you define the problem correctly, you almost have it solved." -- Steve Jobs
• "We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations." --Charles Swindoll

Examples of insights due to re-defining the problem

• Animal shelters asking "How can we help owners keep their pets?" rather than asking "How can we get all these abandoned pets adopted?"
• Behaviorists--and clever parents--asking "How can we get children to do good behaviors instead of bad behaviors?" rather than asking "How can we stop bad behaviors?"
• Defining the problem of saving gasoline (and the environment) by trying to increase gallons per mile rather than trying to increase miles per gallon. To understand why this re-definition is so useful, check out either of the links below:
• People often say, "If I like x, I will buy it" when they should be asking "Would buying x make me happier than spending that money on something else?"
• Riddles can be challenging because they are usually problems that are deliberately stated in a way that either defines the problem poorly or that causes most people to define the problem poorly (e.g., "How many months of the year having 28 days?")

Why don't we know what the problem is? 8 pitfalls in defining the problem.

1. Not recognizing that there is a problem because
• We ignore "near misses": We don't worry about cell phone distracting us from driving because we haven't had an accident yet; in industrial settings, the serious accident often occurs only after about 50 (ignored )near accidents have occurred.
• We may not notice the problem because things are getting worse slowly or inconsistently (e.g., global warming)
2. Not accepting there is a problem ("Denial is not just a river in Egypt"). Examples:
• Normalcy bias: "negative panic"--acting like things are normal when they clearly are not. Ex: People leaving slowly--or not at all--from dangerous situations such as the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attack
• Denying that smoking causes cancer.
• Denying the threat caused by COVID-19.
• Denying that there are problems with U.S. policing and justice systems.
• The addict denying having a drug problem.
3. Narrowly defining the problem in a way that eliminates options or not realizing that a problem can be defined in several ways.
4. Defining the problem in a way that is too vague. Example: A student says "I am having trouble with the course" or " I did not do well on the last exam." This would be like a physician telling a patient that "there is something wrong" or a psychologist saying that a patient "has issues."
5. Biases may cause us to misidentify the cause of the problem. As Maslow wrote, "it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."
Examples:
• Republicans seem to think, despite the evidence, that all problems are caused by taxes and all problems can be solved by cutting taxes.
• Republicans seem to think that budget deficits are bad--when there is a Democratic president.
• Bigots see the U.S. immigration problem as that there are too many immigrants when, in fact, the problem is that we have too few--a fact that threatens social security and our future economic growth.

Four particularly common and powerful biases that hurt our ability to find the real cause of a problem:

1. The "Not me" bias: We often don't take responsibility for our contribution to the problem. For example, you have heard people say things like:

• "It's not my fault."
• "Look at what you made me do!"
• "You are making me mad."
• "That's a nasty question."
• "Fake news!"
One way to own your problem is suggested by Timothy Ferris: "...tell my story to myself from the perspective of a victim, then I tell the exact same story from a place of 100 percent responsibility."
2. The fundamental attribution error. Personalizing problems: Blaming people rather than situations. As anyone who has been stuck in traffic or in a bad job knows, bad environments can make even mature, rational people do immature, irrational things.
3. Preconceptions bias perception and memory, as shown by the confirmation bias: We look for and remember evidence that is consistent with our beliefs and we interpret neutral, ambiguous, or conflicting evidence as supporting our beliefs. So, If we believe that Joe is a bad employee, we will be more likely to notice and remember the times when Joe makes mistakes than we are to notice and remember times when Joe does an average or good job. Furthermore, we tend to "see" what we expect to see. So, if you expect Joe to be a trouble maker, you may interpret his behavior more negatively than if you expect Joe to be a team player.
4. Preconceptions create reality (behavioral confirmation): If the teacher expects a student to do poorly, that student is more likely to do poorly than if a teacher expects that student to do well.

6. We are misled because
• We think that we--and other people--know our own minds. So, if you or someone else earnestly says that x is the cause, we believe that x is the cause. However, as Nisbett and Wilson showed way back in 1977 as well as in other studies, what people believe is causing their behavior is often not what is really causing their behavior. Put another way, people are better at knowing that there is a problem than knowing the cause of that problem.
• We want to see a relationship problem as being due to one of the people in the relationship, but the problem may be in the relationship--in the way that the people interact.
• We fall for coincidences. The person who says "I don't believe in coincidence," like the person who says "I don't believe in con artists," is easily fooled. The world is a noisy, messy, coincidence-filled place and so figuring out what is related to the problem and what is a coincidence is difficult. As a result, we may need to rely on scientists to determine what is and what is not a coincidence. Many people refuse to do so; consequently, we have people arguing that cigarettes don't cause cancer and that humans are not contributing to global warming.
• We create  illusory correlations: Even if we aren't victimized by coincidences, we may see an unrelated set of events as related. Prejudices and superstitions are sometimes the result of relationships that exist only in our heads.
• We mistake symptoms or effects for causes: Even if we correctly figure out what factors are related to our problem, these factors may only be side effects of the real cause. As scientists say, "Correlation is not causation."
• We assume we know a person's motives (the "cause" of their behavior), but we are really only guessing-- and our guess could be wrong.
• Even if we correctly identify a cause of the problem, what we think is an important source of the problem may be unimportant  whereas a factor that we think is unimportant may turn out to be very important. For example, people think the key to losing weight is to exercise more, but losing weight by cutting calories is much more effective than losing weight by increasing exercise. Although figuring out which causes are the most important ones is difficult, if we take advantage of science, expertise, and experience, we may be able to learn what factors to focus on, thus allowing us to take advantage of the 80/20 rule (also known as the Pareto Principle).

7. Incorrectly identifying what  kind of problem we have, so we try to solve one type of problem when we should be trying to solve a different type of problem.
8.               Example 1:

What rule is determining the sequence of these numbers?    8,5, 4, 9, 1, 6, 7, 10, 3, 2

Two other examples: Think of the last time you applied the wrong formula to a word-problem or heard of a friend who was misdiagnosed by a doctor.

• Sometimes, we misidentify the kind of problem we have because of the representativeness heuristic: a general rule used when people decide whether something is an example of a category. If  what we are looking at  matches our memory of a typical instance of a category, we will classify that  thing as being a member of that category. For example, you determine whether someone is a child or an adult based on their appearance matching your memorized examples of children and adults. The advantage of the representativeness heuristic is that people can take advantage of their experiences and their expertise. For example, a doctor can quickly diagnose a patient who has a disease that the doctor has seen hundreds of times before. Unfortunately, because problems that look similar  may be very different,  the representativeness heuristic may lead not only to stereotyping, but to misdiagnosing the problem by overlooking key differences between this new problem and old problems.
• The representativeness heuristic may also cause us to ignore important information. For example, a doctor might, seeing that the patient's symptoms matched malaria, use the representativeness heuristic to diagnose the patient as having malaria, even though the patient probably didn't have malaria given one important fact: There hadn't been a malaria case where the patient lived in over 50 years.

9. Not testing your assumptions about the cause of the problem because of the confirmation bias.

On to Step 2: Generating Options

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