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A problem arises when we need to overcome some obstacle in order to get from our current state to a desired state. Problem solving is the process that an organism implements in order to try to get from the current state to the desired state. Successful behaviour was itself believed to have been arrived at through a process of trial-and-error. By contrast, Gestalt psychologists argued that problem solving was a productive process. In particular, in the process of thinking about a problem individuals sometimes “restructured” their representation of the problem, leading to a flash of insight that enabled them to reach a solution. The Gestalt psychologists described several aspects of thought that acted as barriers to successful problem solving. One of these was called the Einstellung effect, now more commonly referred to as mental set or entrenchment.
Another barrier to problem solving is functional fixedness, whereby individuals fail to recognize that objects can be used for a purpose other than that they were designed for. What do you think of Köhler’s claim that his apes had demonstrated insight? What proportion of Maier’s participants spontaneously found the solution before getting any kind of hint? What did Maier do that led some people to get the correct solution? In 1972, Allen Newell and Herbert Simon published the book Human Problem Solving, in which they outlined their problem space theory of problem solving. In this theory, people solve problems by searching in a problem space. Another heuristic is difference reduction, or hill-climbing, whereby people take the action that leads to the biggest similarity between current state and goal state.
On one side of a river are three hobbits and three orcs. They have a boat on their side that is capable of carrying two creatures at a time across the river. The goal is to transport all six creatures across to the other side of the river. The solution to this problem, together with an explanation of how difference reduction is often applied, can be found by clicking here.