General Problem Solving

By | July 10, 2019

General problem solving (GPS) involves solving every kind of problem in a satisfactory manner. This includes steps referred to as the “problem-solving cycle.” These are steps used in order until a satisfactory solution is found. How acceptable the solution depends on personal judgment.

Five of the most common processes and factors that researchers have identified as barriers to problem solving are confirmation bias, mental set, functional fixedness, unnecessary constraints, and irrelevant information.

Here are the steps to human solving a general problem according to psychologists:

1. Identify the Problem

Identifying the problem usually involves two steps: where are you now and where do you want to be? These steps are often referred to as states. The first state is where you are the last state is where you want to be. You must understand the problem in order to identify it. This may involve some research to better understand the problem.

2. Define the Problem

In conceptualization, human problem solving consists of two related processes: problem orientation and the motivational/attitudinal/affective approach to problematic situations and problem-solving skills. Problem solving orientation is a set of cognitions, beliefs, emotions arising from previous experiences. The motivational approach is the energization and direction of behavior.

It’s important to correctly identify both start and goal states to find the correct solution. If you know these two states, you can define the problem. Here are some examples of definitions:

“My grades are poor. I want to improve my grades.”

“I am at home. I want to drive to my new Doctor’s office.”

“I am nervous about tomorrow’s meeting. I want to be less nervous.”

You can see the current state and the goal for each definition.

3. Forming a Strategy

This step involves planning how to get from the start state to the end state. Looking at the problem with different perspectives can help. Trying different strategies can be used when all else fails.

4. Organizing Information

This step involves what you know about the problem versus what you don’t know about the problem. It’s good to know what constraints you have and what options are available. You may have to revise your strategy as you learn more about your options available.

5. Allocating Resources

Once you have a possible strategy, do you have the means to complete it? Resources like time, energy, funds, mental capacity, etc. may discount some good options and force you to choose sub-optimal solutions.

6. Monitoring Progress

Effective problem solvers have been known to document their progress rather than rely on memory alone. Knowing which solutions – or parts of solutions – that have failed is good to know when revising your strategy.

7. Evaluating the Results

You may have reached a solution, but is it the best one? You can try other solutions and compare them – especially the resources they take.

You may decide that study an extra hour each day and find that it improves your grades greatly, but that studying two extra hours has a very small effect on your grades and isn’t worth the resources of time and energy.

You may take the highway to work and find that it is slower than side streets. You may conclude that the hassle of side streets is worth the decreased time to get to work.

You may do research on relaxation and try several techniques, concluding that mindfulness exercises are best for you given time and their efficacy.

Polya’s Problem Solving Cycle

Polya's problem solving cycle

George Pólya came up with four steps to solving a problem.

There are only four steps to this cycle, which continue until the problem is solved or resources, such as time, attention, or money, are exhausted.

1. Understand the Problem

Here is where you get enough information to understand the problem.

If you are unclear as to what needs to be solved, then you get useless results. Don’t try to solve the problem before you understand it. You need to list all the components and data that are involved.

What is the goal? What is your current state? What is the domain, ontology, topic, and subject of the problem? What resources do I need to reach the goal?

2. Make a Plan

This is where you come up with a a solution. There may be several solutions to your problem, but with this method, you deal with one at a time. Making a tree-like path from start to finish is one example of how to plan. It’s similar to path-finding.

When coming up with plans, consider how fare are you from the goal (roughly), the general direction you’re goal is (if relevant), the the resources needed for the plan, and possible hurdles you may encounter.

3. Carry out the Plan

This is where you act out the plan you made in step (3). Make a list of what you tried. This list can be used later to avoid repetition or get an idea of which paths get you closer to your goal — even if you don’t reach it during that attempt.

4. Look Back at the Solution

Here you judge how good your solution is based on cost in resources. You would usually choose the plan that takes the least resources to carry out. What worked and what didn’t? Is there a better solution you’ve tried in the past? Mark on your list or path what worked and what didn’t.

Go back to step (1) if you haven’t found an acceptable solution or if yor problem-solving resources or relevance expire.

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