That Thing in your Head Holding you Back — 4

In this part of my series, I describe the obstacles to problem-solving strategies. That isn’t very useful without learning about different strategies in the first place, so make sure to check out my introduction to the series.

So What if I told You the Things Limiting your Mind are the Limits of your Mind?

While people don’t always recognise it, one of the most important factors that hold them back from solving a problem is their own preconceptions about it. That isn’t as preachy as simply saying that anyone can solve their problems if they just believe they can, but it does mean that someone is less likely to solve a problem if they’ve already decided it’s impossible. This can generally be categorised as part of confirmation bias.

People’s tendencies towards confirmation bias are in the human nature to focus more on information that they agree with and interpret it in accordance with their existing emotions and beliefs. This is a natural phenomenon that influences even scientists, which is harmful because it sways the conclusions a person makes. Markedly, confirmation bias affects people in three main ways: it influences the information they look for, the meaning they draw from that information, and the information they remember.

To enumerate, consider pharmaceutical researchers looking for a more effective malaria vaccine. The researchers have past experiences working with the protein currently used in the low-efficiency RTS, S malaria vaccine, so that is the protein they experiment with in future research instead of considering an entirely new solution. Moreover, since they recall this vaccine was supported by the reputable Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they inherently build trust and support for that solution over less established research. These are all examples of the confirmation bias, which also exacerbates another common barrier called mental set.

If at First, you Don’t Succeed, Try Try Again… Unless you Run Out of Money

Mental set causes people to behave or establish beliefs based on their previous experience. This limits the number of new solutions people try to solve a problem. The focus of studying mental set is often in problem-solving to see how quickly individuals break away from mental sets to reach new innovations.

Typically, problems with mental set occur in three stages:

  1. You try to solve a problem as you have previously.
  2. The attempt is unsuccessful for the new problem.
  3. You realise a new method is needed to solve the current problem.
  4. This is exemplified in the previous example; the researchers’ prior experience makes them more prone to testing the old strain of protein for a vaccine than trying something completely new. After failing to find promising results, however, they would transition away from this mental set to research different solutions. Then comes the last main psychological barrier for problem-solving: functional fixedness.

I’ll Stop Judging Things when Pigs Fly!

Functional fixedness is a psychological effect that limits people to thinking about ideas only in the way they are typically used. This leads to firm preconceptions about the possibilities of innovative, new ideas. In the title above, the functional fixedness is about the nature of pigs not being able to fly. From repetitive cultural and personal experiences, people develop firm expectations about the conventional uses of any idea. This is especially harmful when someone is trying to solve a new problem. The solution to a problem could be to design a new idea/object for that specific problem, but it would be easier to use existing ideas/objects in a previously unheard-of manner. The challenge is that functional fixedness makes it hard to find creative, new uses of existing ideas.

For instance, say someone is asked to create a more effective farm plow with an accordion. At first, functional fixedness would likely stump any person given this task, as they would not be able to think of another use for an accordion besides making music. After overcoming this block in mindset, however, someone could invent a more unorthodox application for it such as poking holes in the bellows (the folds in the middle), filling up the inside with water, and then using the accordion as a water sprinkler by folding and unfolding the bellows.

The Problem isn’t Me; the Problem is the Problem

Finally, there are also common barriers that exist in the problems and the expectations for solutions themselves. Namely, isolating a specific and comprehensible problem from a general error can be challenging in itself. Often, it is necessary to establish which information is useful and which information is redundant. To illustrate, analysing the load capacity of a bridge requires consideration of factors such as its material, length, and usage. When you’re analysing data about the bridge, however, you would likely get information that is less relevant, including who designed it, when it was built, safety check procedures, etc. This information isn’t as directly pertinent to the problem at hand, even though it could be indirectly used in other ways. Notably, it is very useful to analyse the typical traffic on the bridge, while it is less useful (but still not irrelevant) to examine the safety testing procedures used while inspecting the bridge over its lifetime.

Moreover, it can also be difficult to remove artificial constraints from a problem, which is made worse by someone’s preconceptions of the solution to a problem. This is not that clear to grasp, so let’s use an example. A university professor asked how to increase enrolment numbers could examine the key points at which curriculum and students’ learning experiences could be improved, increasing graduation rates and making the university’s program more attractive. The constraints for the professor would be to address the key issues identified in the curriculum. A marketing director, however, may think these constraints are unnecessary for the problem at hand, thinking it simpler to improve the university’s promotion to draw increase enrolment. As can be seen, people’s varied personal experiences make it easy to impose constraints on the problem which may not always be best for finding the easiest solution.

Key Takeaways

  • People often hold on to previous experiences, reluctant to accept new ideas;
  • Using an old solution can be easy, but it may not be the best for new problems;
  • Creating new uses of old things can be hard, but also very efficient;
  • And Problems aren’t always in a nice form. You have to focus on the right details.

These are all relevant issues and challenges to be mindful of when attempting to solve a problem, but it is often helpful to use strategies like lateral thinking to bypass these hurdles. Considering how psychological or other barriers may be influencing your judgement can allow you to be aware of patterns in your thinking that can be improved for better problem-solving.

With that being said, this is the end of this series for now. I’m going to continue to explore problem-solving in new ways after learning about all this and I encourage you to do the same. Feel free to reach out to me via Linkedin to discuss this topic :-)

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Madhav Malhotra

Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/