Every organization and every individual must succeed at problem solving. Successful problem solving is a complex process that requires the involvement of several psychological factors. This paper will briefly review the role that four of the most important factors play in problem solving.

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Working memory capacity is the ability to hold in short-term memory the information needed to solve problems. This information might be worked on and transformed in the process, and the various parts need to be held within memory until brought together for the final answer (Wiley & Jarosz, 2012). For example, in multi-digit analytical problem solving, to mentally solve 325 + 46, one must add the single digits, carry to the next column, remember the next number over, remember the total numbers, etc. Distraction has been shown to severely limit the ability to work with even single digits in memory. Therefore, good working memory capacity requires attentional focus and the ability to limit distractions. However, this very focus has been shown to be detrimental to creative problem solving, which requires access to long-term memory and information from diverse sources, in order to put things together in a new way. In real world problem solving, then, success may result from the ability to switch between narrow focused attention and broad diffuse attention as the situation demands.

Encoding processes are simply those processes by which we select material to remember, and by which we store that memory. So, for example, we may see a bird for the first time and may remember it by its song, by its color, by its size, by where we saw it, and under the category of birds and Spring and animals and things that fly and things that sing. We may ask someone what it is called, or search a bird book or online for its name, since we usually remember things better when we have a name for them. In problem solving in business, it has been recommended that there be an information search, retrieval and encoding stage. Researchers have found that when information gathering is too restricted, then problem solutions are not creative enough. However, when information is too irrelevant or misleading, then solutions will be poor (Reiter-Palmon & Illies, 2004). Therefore, a balance has to be achieved between retrieving and encoding a broad range of information while keeping the range within the bounds of what is most likely to help solve the problem.

Long-term memory retrieval also plays a role in problem solving. Retrieval from long-term memory may itself require problem solving, if the particular memories are difficult to retrieve, as we often only have partial memories at first. We therefore develop a strategy to retrieve needed information, including searching for its context (Williams & Hollan, 2010). In the bird example above, when we next hear its song, we might think, “I’ve heard that before, I remember I searched online, I didn’t find the name with the picture, I went to YouTube where they have recordings of songs, it sounded kind of like its name, oh now I remember!” In solving analytical problems we would need, for example, to remember the addition tables stored in long-term memory, in addition to remembering the particular numbers we are currently working. For creative problem solving, we may retrieve pieces of information necessary for possible solutions from internal searches of long-term memory or from external searches such as the Internet.

And finally, metacognition is the process of thinking about our own cognition. By evaluating how we think as we solve problems, we can enhance our problem-solving abilities. For example, Safari and Meskini (2015) taught students in the health sciences using a metacognition approach and discovered an approximately 50% improvement in problem-solving skills. Some of the questions they taught students to ask included, “Have I understood whatever is needed for understanding the problem?” “Can I write the possible solutions to get the correct response?” “Am I approaching the goal?” and “Do I need to review the problem again and use another strategy?”

Clearly many factors work together to create effective problem solving. The more relevant information we have available, the more successful we will be. Although there are differences between analytical and creative problem solving, in both cases we need to be able to take information from many sources and synthesize that information appropriately to arrive at the best solution.

  • Reiter-Palmon, R., & Illies, J.J. (2004). Leadership and creativity: Understanding leadership from a creative problem-solving perspective. Psych. Faculty Pubs., Paper 31. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1031&context=psychfacpub
  • Safari, Y., & Meskini, H. The effect of metacognitive instruction on problem solving skills in Iranian students of health sciences. Global J. Health Sci., 8 (1), 150-156. Retrieved from http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/gjhs/article/viewFile/44422/26283
  • Wiley, J., & Jarosz, A.F. (2012). Working memory capacity, attentional focus, and problem solving. Curr. Dir. Psych. Sci., 21 (4), 258-262. Retrieved from http://cdp.sagepub.com/content/21/4/258.full
  • Williams, M.D., & Hollan, J.D. (2010). The process of retrieval from very long-term memory. Cognitive Sci., 5, 87-119. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1207/s15516709cog0502_1/pdf