Problem Solving, Reasoning, and Cognitive Development

1. Recall a problem that you found difficult to understand, either from an academic area or from some other aspect of your life. Which of Greeno’s three requirements for understanding (coherence, correspondence, and relationship to background knowledge) were not met in this problem?

2. Dr. Anna Smith is a clinical psychiatrist. She just heard about someone who had a bad reaction to a medication that is used for depression. With respect to decision-making heuristics, discuss what might influence Dr. Smith’s decision making process when considering prescribing this specific medication in the future.

3. Suppose that a 4-year old boy has just visited the zoo. He is describing what he saw, first to his mother and then to his 2-year old sister. Discuss how his descriptions to his mother and sister would be similar and different.

1. Years ago, the employees and owners of companies situated in a New York building complained heavily that the elevators were too slow. The building owner planned to replace them with expensive and new elevators. Just a week before the replacement, the building owner’s assistant added mirrors, next to the elevators, in the lobby. The complaints stopped. This problem shows that the original and obvious thought of the cause of the complaints was wrong. The problem was boredom. Understanding means constructing mental representations of problems, based on experience and information.

Research shows that people organize problems with sub problems. Greeno (1991) demonstrated that people, during the problem, pause to address a sub problem and need to organize a sequence of moves, activating the working memory. Research shows that people do not want to move away from the goal state. In life, the most efficient way to move forward is to temporarily move back. If people use means-ends analysis to solve problems, then they, at times, violate a rigid difference-reduction strategy.

Understanding depends on three requirements:

• Coherence

• Correspondence

• Relationship to background.

Coherence means that an individual is able to connect a pattern, so that all parts make sense. Understanding the problem is necessary. For example, what does the following analogy mean? Tree trunks are straws for thirsty leaves and branches. This means nothing unless the person is able to make the connection of tree trunks, straws, and moving liquid. Once a person sees the connection, then the statement makes sense and is understood.

Correspondence means there is a relationship between the individual’s internal representations and the material being understood. The problem solver must relate to the problem. For example, a person goes into a patient’s home to check his or her post-operative recovery. While in the home, the person hears the patient telling her daughter: “You must go to the strand to get the fish for dinner”. What is a strand? Actually, a strand is a beach; however, an individual may not understand this word, unless he or she was raised in a location where this is a commonly used phrase.

The third component of understanding is the most basic one. A person must have some background knowledge in order to understand. Without a foundation then understanding cannot happen A person must know the basics first. Has anyone ever tried to run before walking? Before understanding and problem solving, having some basic knowledge is necessary.

Exactly one year ago, I was in a rental home situation with my friend Amy as housemate. The landlord of the house was a belligerent, creepy and mean person I had avoided as much as possible. To this date, he has an obsession with the garden of the house. One day, he saw my puppy, who at the time was 7 month old, unleashed in the garden and he served me a 3 day eviction notice to get rid of the dog. He served the notice 1 day late, by attaching it to the door, so, in practicality, he actually gave me a 2 day notice.

In terms of coherence, I was able to see a pattern between the dishonest landlord’s behavior and his past lawsuits from tenants and a pattern with his OCD about the garden, for which he had been evicting most dogs, although they were on the lease contract. I had been a landlord for 12 years, at the time, so I was aware of real estate and landlord-tenant laws. On top of it, he lied on the eviction letter, saying my dog was vicious and attacked him, because he knew that lie was the only legal ground for eviction. My dog would not harm a fly, has been formally trained, has travelled the world with me and does service volunteer work with the elders at the hospital.

In terms of correspondence, or the relationship between my internal representations and the information I understood, there was a big problem I needed to solve fast. Of one thing I was sure: my dog was going to remain living with me and I would never, never get rid of her! Despite that, some friends of mine, suggested I leave the dog with someone else, while the economy picked up. That was the worst advice I received. I looked for legal advice, I collected letter testimonials from everyone who knew my puppy Sammy, I tried to negotiate with the unmovable landlord, and I brainstormed solutions. Amy was leaving for NY to visit her Dad’s going through chemotherapy, while she was on vacation and not getting paid because she works for the school district. I knew she was not in a financial position to move and, out of my friendship with her, I did my best to help her. I looked for someone to replace me in the rental house, while I was looking for someone to keep Sammy until the nightmare was over. Sammy got the tour of three friend’s homes and a boarding house. She did not understand what was going on and was having psychosomatic symptoms like diarrhea and anxiety. At the same time, I was trying to work and take care of my other pet, Angel, a senior cat. I was leaving for a pre-scheduled trip, for Italy, where my family lives and where I am from originally, 3 weeks later. The plan before the eviction notice was that I was going to leave the pets with Amy, but now that was not an option. I was ready to fight the landlord but Amy did not want to risk an eviction on her records and I wanted to respect it. I could take the landlord to court, but I was leaving for Italy. In the end, despite a lot of stress, it all worked out for the best. I took both pets to Italy and I stayed there for the whole Summer, instead of 2 weeks and we all had a blast. When I returned to Los Angeles, my pets and I moved to a beautiful home with huge garden and we have been much happier than before. Amy and I are still good friends. I took the landlord to small claim court and I won expense reimbursement.

In terms of the relationship to the background, or the basic understanding, I had to calm myself down, gather information, write down all the possible solutions, discuss them with my coach, friends and family and went with the one that was best for me and my pet’s sake.

Being able to analyze a problem and get to the solution -successfully- is very important.

I like to advocate the a systematic problem solving approach using the problem solving cycle of:

o identify problem

o allocate resources

o act

o evaluate progress

o assess and revise

2. Decision-making heuristics help people daily. Decision making errors can happen when people overemphasize heuristics and underemphasize the unique features of the current decision. Representativeness heuristics use population samples. Availability heuristics makes people estimate probabilities of how easily they remember examples. The availability heuristics produces errors, when biasing factors influence availability. This heuristics explains illusory correlation or stereotypes. The recognition heuristics helps people make accurate decisions about relative frequency.

The adjustment heuristics helps people adjust, even if not enough, based on other information. These heuristics also estimate confidence intervals. The way in which a question is asked can influence decisions. Salespeople know this concept and ask questions to get a “yes” in the answers. Background data can influence people’s decisions inappropriately. The framing effect also applies to wording. When the words imply gains, people tend to avoid risks. If the wording implies losses, then people tend to look for risks.

People tend to be overconfident about their decisions. Examples are politicians and college students. In the hindsight bias, people know the outcome of an event and they are so optimistic that they could make accurate predictions. Satisficers make decisions fast, versus maximizers agonize over their decisions, which may lead to regrets and depression. I have been a maximizer, I have been aware of it and have been working on skewing it. Gerd Gigerenzer (2006) says that people are skilled at making decisions in natural environments, using many heuristics. People use attribute substitution when they do not know an answer, by substituting with an easier and similar answer.

If Dr. Anna Smith, clinical psychiatrist, heard about someone reacting badly to a depression medication, then, all the heuristics types above might influence her future decision making around prescriptions. Dr. Smith may research the drug further, she may inform the drug manufactures about it, she may document the fact for herself, her colleagues and affiliated institutions, she may look for alternative drugs, and/or she may warn future clients about the possible effects of it, and/or she may never prescribe it again.

Prior knowledge will be used as part of the availability heuristic in terms of making her clinical decisions. Dr. Smith’s decisions (whether heuristic-like or not) could be biased by her relationship with the patient

3. When people speak, they also are attuned to the social context of speech. For instance, I am watching the Emmy’s Awards and the presenters’ and winners’ speeches reflect the movie academy context. I also get somewhat upset because they do not thank the audience watching, but the audience does not get any say in the votes.

Conversating is like a complex dance. Speakers consider their conversation partners’ assumptions, intentions and utterances. Conversation requires coordination so people do not speak at once. Conversations require understanding to continue. Pragmatics is the knowledge of language’s social rules. Pragmatics focuses on common ground and understanding directives. Common ground happens when conversationalists share the same background information, schemas and mutual understanding and experience. Speakers must ensure the audience is listening, even when they are using non-verbal language; they must avoid ambiguity and clarify any misunderstanding when the audience looks lost. Conversational partners become better and better at communicating effectively. Lexical entrainment is a pragmatic skill groups develop among its members. A group of kids or siblings may use their own lexical entrainment to refer to things and experiences. Adults are likely to use more indirect requests than children, who have not developed that skill, yet and are more likely to use directives or direct requests (Gibbs, 2003).

If a 4-year old kid had just visited the zoo and described what he saw, first to his mother and then to his 2-year old sibling, then his descriptions would be both similar and different. They could be similar because it is the same or similar social context and because both conversation partners, the mother and the sibling, could be paying attention and understanding. They could also be similar because all three individuals share the same common grounds, being related and living together. Lastly, they could all be similar because they have learned and agree to use lexical entrainment, while conversating.

For the same reasons, the 4-year old kid’s descriptions could be different. He may have visited the zoo before with only one of his family members, therefore, the social context would be different. They could be different because the younger sibling may not be interested in or understand his description. They could be different because he may have developed different common grounds, including lexical entrainment, with only his mother and his sister or viceversa. Finally, in proportion, he probably has more experience talking to his mother (3 years or more worth of conversing), versus to his sibling (1 or 2 years’ worth of). The 4 year old boy will use language to communicate differently, depending on his conversation partner. This helps people understand that language is a form of communication, and this communication is quite situation specific, such that communication is broad – and language can be manipulated for purposes of communication.


Gibbs, R. W., Jr. (2003). Nonliteral speech acts in text and discourse. In A. C. Graesser, M. A. Gernsbacher, & S. R. Goldman (Eds.), Handbook of discourse process (pp.357-393). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gigerenzer, G. (2006). Heuristics. In G. Gigerenzer (Eds.), Heuristics and the law (pp. 17-44). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Greeno, J.G. (1991). A view of mathematical problem solving in school. In M.U. Smith (Ed.), Toward a unified theory of problem solving (pp. 69-98). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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