Problem Solving: A Psychological Perspective

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Problems are a part of life. They make the human existence exciting and challenging. Without problems, the world will be tremendously boring. No one will strive hard; there will be nothing to look forward to, and nothing to challenge human strength and resilience. Problems, though, bring with them stresses and worries, which further hinder the person from arriving at a solution.


How to recognize a problem

There are cues that are helpful for a person (or others close to him/her) to realize that things are not really okay and that the person is faced with worries. The cues are:

  • There is an initial state where we can observe some actions that can potentially divert a positive goal outcome into a negative one.
  • There could be a goal state that is different from the initial state and which the person wishes to achieve.
  • The actions that are necessary to convert the initial state into the goal state are not immediately obvious.


How to solve it

Many spend a great deal of time solving or attempting to solve problems, but not everyone goes through it successfully.

Problem solving is not always easy, as there are too many factors to consider while arriving at the solution. There are the people to deal with, because responses differ with different personalities.  The second consideration is the timing. Problem solving strategies are not always 100% effective at any given time. Finally, the person’s open-mindedness, because this will mirror how well the person handles the actions set inside for the solution. Often, people end up worsening the problem or involve others who are not supposed to be included or affected.

There may also be times in a person’s life when he/she is unable to tackle life issues, say after a bereavement or a traumatic event or when depressed. Some people have difficulty making decisions because they suffer from anxiety.

Psychologists, who study how people work on their problems, break down problem solving into a series of stages or mental processes. While there are many types of mental distress and their gravity also differs, it is considered that people more or less follow a similar pattern in solving problems. This pattern can be described using George Polya’s method. In his bestselling book, “How to Solve It,” Polya, a Hungarian mathematician, puts forth four steps for problem solving:

  1. Understanding the problem
  2. Devising a plan
  3. Carrying out the plan
  4. Looking back

These four steps are universal. While Polya methods have their basis in maths, the steps can be used to solve any problem – not just mathematical ones, but also life issues.


Understanding the problem

Polya’s first stage is all about understanding the problem. From a psychological standpoint, we can say that this is all about arriving at the root cause of the problem. This is done by encoding the problem in the working memory.

The problem solver listens or analyses the problem, translating it into statements such as, “My problem is… this happened because… and I want to find out…” Since the working memory depends on the memory itself, the only probable concern that might be posed is the incapability of remembering the rest of the problem that can lead to solution errors.

Looking closely into this stage, this is one very important step to finding out what possible best solution there is. From a psychological point of view, understanding what is troubling an individual serves as a key to the right path towards eliminating the stressor.


Devising a plan

The person searches the long term memory for cues on probable answers or solutions for the problem. The information in the long term memory may be from previously encountered events or personal experiences that can help formulate a solution.

It is essential here to decipher carefully which information is useful in making a plan of action.

Not all solutions of similar experiences are helpful or effective in solving a new “headache”. This is because every experience is unique, no matter how similar the situations are. People involved in a particular event or phenomenon are very relevant factors to be considered on the actions to be undertaken. Everyone is unique; therefore, responses to a particular situation may also differ.

Now, to come up with a plan is very important, as this will serve as a guide to what actions are needed to be done. While solving a problem, never rush to a decision, as this often leads to chaos or to further dilemma. Psychologists generally encourage their patients to come up with a plan of action to deal with the situation.


Carrying out the plan

Looking back at the previous stages, the individual encodes and searches the memory to be able to come up with a possible answer. Now, in this stage, the person executes everything that has been contemplated upon in the previous stages.

If this stage has only a few steps and that plan is worked out in detail, then this can be completed fast with just a few or no errors at all. However, if this stage involves many vague plans, then the problem solving may take a long time and will become prone to error. Hence, it is essential to analyse the problem thoroughly and come up with an effective plan before carrying it out, so as to avoid a solution?fail.

Polya also suggests breaking a problem into small steps. If you are faced with a big task, break it into several small tasks, taking one problem at a time. Similarly, if you are working against time when on a deadline, keep on working and you are sure to complete it; whereas if you give into anxiety and worry about whether you will finish on time, you will end up making mistakes and consequently lose time too.


Looking back

This stage is related to evaluating the results. The problem solver compares the solution with how problems are presented in the working memory. The problem solver assesses the outcome carefully as to whether the action undertaken has really been successful or not.

In this stage, the issue may be solved or unsolved. Furthermore, regret may also surface during this stage, especially when what has been planned has not been followed through. Nonetheless, this stage is essential and has many advantages. The evaluation result may be used as a basis for future circumstances, especially to similar problems. Success and failure are made known early, so unsuccessful problem solving strategies are remedied as early as possible.


When to seek help

The stages presented above are not necessarily planned. When a person encounters a problem or a dilemma, he or she unconsciously goes through these stages just to eliminate whatever there is that bothers him or her or causes the uneasiness and stress.

In reality, problem solving is a skill that is very necessary for one to be able to get out or redeem oneself from a crisis. All the same, most of the time, a person follows through the stages that we discussed. Thus, whenever an individual attempts to solve a problem, the processes that are involved in each stage remain the key to a successful resolution.

However, when a person is unable to settle his or her problems because of unresolved psychological or emotional issues, then it is best that he or she take the time to heal first. The person can turn to friends and family for support or can seek help from a professional.

If you are looking for help, whether for yourself or for a loved one, our psychologists can assist in exploring underlying issues through therapy. Please visit our practitioners’ page to find out more, or call (03) 9820-5577 for an appointment or to make enquiries.


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