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Problem Solving and Decision Making

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Problem Solving and Decision Making

What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Did you choose cereal or a bagel? Why? Or what if you missed the bus? How did you solve this problem? Problem-solving and decision-making are skills we use all day, every day. But what is actually involved in these processes? Let's read on and find out.

  • In this article, we will begin by discussing the similarities and differences between problem-solving and decision-making.

  • Then, we'll lay out the problem-solving and decision-making steps.

  • As we continue, we'll look at the criteria for decision-making and problem-solving.

  • We will then list the types of problems in decision-making.

  • Finally, we'll take a look at a few examples of decision-making problems.

Problem-Solving and Decision-Making: Similarities and Differences

Both problem-solving and decision-making are mental processes that involve the use of information to determine an action. Both require identification and evaluation. Decision-making may be part of problem-solving and problem-solving may be part of decision making.

However problem-solving and decision-making have noticeable differences.

Problem-solving means that a person is trying to find a solution to a problem, whether it's ongoing, intermittent, or a one-time failure.

Decision-making, on the other hand, requires a person to make choices or to choose between options (or not).

Decision-making is also usually clearer at the start than problem-solving. When making a decision the choices are often quite clear and clearly presented. But with problem-solving, the biggest part of the battle might be identifying what the problem itself is.

A detective must solve the problem by solving a case. A judge must make decisions such as determining bail, sentencing, and other trial procedures.

Also, the process of problem-solving and decision-making can look different in the brain. The point at which you find a solution to a problem can often feel like a lightbulb going off in your head. In some ways, that is similar to what occurs in the brain.

Research shows that the frontal lobe (responsible for focusing attention) is most active while a person is trying to solve a problem. But once they have found the solution, suddenly, there is a burst of activity in the right temporal lobe (Myers, 2014). Making a decision, however, is usually a much more gradual process.

Problem Solving and Decision Making, cartoon with thought bubble then lightbulb, StudySmarterProblem-solving and lightbulb goes off, Pixabay.com

Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Steps

Problem-solving and decision-making steps can look very similar. However, to go about them the same exact way would be an incorrect approach. Let's take a look at the specific steps in problem-solving and decision-making.

Problem-Solving Steps

The steps are: specify the problem, analyze the problem, formulate solutions, evaluate solutions, choose a solution, and evaluate the outcome.

1. Specify the Problem

As mentioned earlier, one of the most challenging steps in problem-solving is identifying what the problem is in the first place. A good way to start is to determine what the goal state is and how it differs from the present state.

2. Analyze the Problem

What are the potential causes of the problem? What does the presentation of this problem mean for the situation? Try to research the problem as much as possible and collect as much information as you can.

3. Formulate Solutions

Begin formulating solutions. but don't feel pressured to know exactly what to do at this stage – simply brainstorm as many solutions as possible and be creative. Consider other problems or situations you've faced in the past and if you can apply what you learned to this problem.

4. Evaluate Solutions

Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each solution and how well it will actually solve the problem. Try to imagine the possible outcomes of each solution. Consider whether the solution solves all of the problem or only parts of it.

5. Choose a Solution

This is the "aha" moment in problem-solving. We often arrive at a solution through insight. Insight is the sudden realization of the solution to a problem. You have considered several possibilities and finally, the right one has finally clicked.

6. Evaluate the outcome

None of us are capable of finding the perfect solution to our problems 100% of the time. Sometimes you have to go back to the drawing board. Don't be discouraged! The last step to problem-solving is to evaluate the outcome of the solution. Even if it is not the outcome you expected, you have the opportunity to learn from it.

Decision-Making Steps

Decision-making may involve problem-solving – but not always. The six steps to problem-solving are as follows: specify the problem, analyze the problem, formulate solutions, evaluate possible solutions, choose a solution, and evaluate the outcome.

1. Identify the Decision or Goal

First, identify what your goal is and why you need to make a decision. Knowing why you're making a decision makes it more likely you'll stick with it and defend it.

2. Gather Information

What information do you need to understand the situation and the decision you have to make? Reach out to people you trust and those who have a better understanding than you.

3. Identify Alternatives

Next, identify what your options are. It is important to note that when making a decision, you are not required to make a choice between the alternatives. But even not making a choice is a decision that you consciously make.

Problem Solving and Decision Making, woman pointing in opposite directions, StudySmarterIdentify alternatives and weigh the evidence, Freepik.com

4. Weigh the Evidence

This is a great time to use a pros and cons list. Consider the impact each alternative may have and potential outcomes.

5. Choose Among Alternatives

Finally, you are ready to choose an alternative. This step may be intimidating, but considering the following questions may help you decide the best path forward:

  • Is this solution compatible with my priorities?

  • Is there any risk involved in this solution and is it worth the risk?

  • Is this a practical solution or would it be far too difficult or even impossible?

6. Take Action

While not always required after solving a problem, making a decision almost always requires you to take action.

You've chosen what college to go to, now you must respond to your acceptance letters and notify the schools you don't want to go to that you will not be attending.

7. Evaluate the outcome

Similar to problem-solving, it would be unrealistic for any of us to know all the information or see every perspective while making a decision. Evaluate the consequences – good or bad – of your decision and then adjust future decisions accordingly.

Criteria for Decision-Making and Problem-Solving

The criteria for decision-making and problem-solving include abstract thinking and reasoning and the ability to use decision-making and problem-solving methods.

Abstract Thinking and Reasoning

To make decisions, a person should at least have the capacity to weigh various options. Young children might not be able to grasp abstract thinking and reasoning, as this skill doesn't develop until adolescence.

If you ask a toddler what they want for lunch, it's best to give them only a couple of options, like chicken nuggets or Mac-n-cheese.

Leaving their options wide open or giving them too many options will probably lead to them saying no or choosing something they don't actually want and guaranteeing a tantrum later.

The same could be said for problem-solving: a person must have the capacity to think of as many solutions as possible which requires abstract thinking and reasoning. One should be able to recognize a problem and determine its significance.

Decision-Making and Problem-Solving Methods

Many times when solving a problem, our strategy is to just do trial and error. Try one solution, if it doesn't work, try another, and another, and another until the problem is solved. Or we may use other techniques to solve a problem. For example, we may try to solve a problem using whatever method we know will guarantee the correct solution or algorithm.

Algorithms are logical rules or procedures that are guaranteed to generate the correct solution to a problem.

Algorithms are most often used in mathematics or chemistry because if you know how to use a formula correctly, you will always get the correct answer. This may be an effective way to solve some problems, but it can be time-consuming.

You are asked to figure out what word can be formed using the following letters: YSCPOGLHOY. You could use an algorithm by finding all the thousands of possible combinations until you land on the correct word. However, this would take far too long.

An alternative method to solve the problem is to use the same methods or information we used to solve similar problems. This is called heuristics.

Heuristics are shortcuts we use that allow us to solve problems and make judgments efficiently.

Types of Problems in Decision-Making

Most of the decisions we make day-to-day require very little time and effort. We follow our intuition to decide which way to take home based on traffic or make snap judgments when deciding which candy to take from the candy jar. Using shortcuts such as heuristics saves us time but without much conscious awareness. This will inevitably lead to errors. Let's take a look at the problems in decision-making including confirmation bias, representative heuristic, availability heuristic, and overconfidence.

Problems in Decision-making

Confirmation bias

Throughout life, we all begin to form concrete ideas and beliefs. When we are more eager to seek evidence in favor of our ideas or beliefs than against them, this is called confirmation bias. This is a consequence of fixation (inability to see other perspectives) and mental set (solving problems the way we've solved similar ones before).

Problem Solving and Decision Making, three fingers pointing at person of color, StudySmarterDiscrimination due to confirmation bias, Freepik.com

Representativeness Heuristic

We all build prototypes (a mental image) of people, places, and things in our world. Our brains form prototypes to understand and categorize our world, but we get into trouble when we believe our prototypes are always true. The representativeness heuristic is when we estimate the likelihood of an event based on whether or not it fits the prototypes we have formed of people, places, things, or events.

A person walks into the store with leather pants, a leather jacket, and tattoos all over. Are they more likely to be a biker or a school teacher? If you answered a biker, then you are using your prototype of what a biker looks like to make your decision, rather than using the base rate. It's more likely that person is a teacher because there are far more teachers in the world than bikers.

Availability Heuristic

We may also fall victim to the availability heuristic while making decisions. The availability heuristic is when we estimate the likelihood of events based on how available they are in our memory or how vivid similar events occurred previously. The availability heuristic can lead to us placing our fear in the wrong places. It is far more likely for a person to die from heart disease than a shark attack but we are much more afraid of sharks than we are of unhealthy foods like donuts.

Overconfidence

Confidence is not a bad thing. People who have a lot of self-confidence usually live happily, make tough decisions easily, and seem competent. But when we are too confident in the accuracy of our beliefs and judgments, it may lead to errors. In fact, people who are overconfident are usually more likely to be wrong. Stockbrokers often fall victim to this when they are sure they can outsmart the stock market, and go all-in on a stock only to lose everything. However, if we get clear feedback and actually receive it, we may be able to avoid the pitfalls of overconfidence.

Decision-Making Problems: Examples

The representativeness heuristic can easily lead to stereotypes and discrimination. Following 9/11, Arab-Americans often faced discrimination because people began to form a prototype (really a stereotype) of what terrorists looked like. For example, Arab-Americans might have experienced more strenuous security checks at the airport.

Even though almost all Arab-Americans are peace-loving people, many began to assume if they looked the part they were "more likely" to be terrorists. This still continues today. White supremacy groups have been responsible for more terrorist attacks in America than any other organization according to the New York Times (2020), yet many people still feel more threatened by a man in a turban than a white man.

Problem Solving and Decision Making - Key takeaways

  • Problem-solving means that a person is trying to find a solution to a problem, whether it's ongoing, intermittent, or a one-time failure. Decision-making, on the other hand, requires a person to make choices or to choose between options (or not).
  • The six steps to problem-solving are as follows: specify the problem, analyze the problem, formulate solutions, evaluate possible solutions, choose a solution, and evaluate the outcome.
  • To make decisions and problem-solve, a person should at least have the capacity to weigh various options. Young children might not be able to grasp abstract thinking and reasoning as this skill doesn't develop until adolescence.
  • Let's take a look at the problems in decision-making including confirmation bias, representative heuristic, availability heuristic, and overconfidence.
  • The representativeness heuristic can easily lead to stereotypes and discrimination. Following 9/11, Arab-Americans often faced discrimination because people began to form a prototype (really a stereotype) of what terrorists looked like.


References

  1. Myers, D. G. Myers' Psychology for AP. Worth Publishers. 2014.

Frequently Asked Questions about Problem Solving and Decision Making

Problem-solving means that a person is trying to find a solution to a problem, whether it's ongoing, intermittent, or a one-time failure. 


Decision-making, on the other hand, requires a person to make choices or to choose between options (or not).

Problem-solving might not require action while decision-making almost always requires an action to follow.

The process of group problem-solving and decision-making should involve defining the problem, determining the cause, developing alternatives, assessing the consequences, and developing an action plan. 

Decision-making and problem-solving are important skills that can be used in all aspects of life including work, family, friends, relationships, and learning. 

Problem-solving and decision-making involves the following: 

1. Identify the decision or problem

2. Gathering information or analyzing the problem

3. Finding solutions or considering alternatives, 

4. Choose a solution or choice

5. Evaluate the outcome

Final Problem Solving and Decision Making Quiz

Question

True or False? Decision-making is also usually clearer at the start than problem-solving.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

How does problem-solving resemble a light bulb going off in the brain?

Show answer

Answer

 Research shows that the frontal lobe (responsible for focusing attention) is most active while a person is trying to solve a problem. But once they have found the solution, suddenly, there is a burst of activity in the right temporal lobe (Myers, 2014.).

Show question

Question

What is the first step of problem-solving?

Show answer

Answer

Specify the problem

Show question

Question

__________ are logical rules or procedures that are guaranteed to generate the correct solution to a problem.

Show answer

Answer

Algorithms

Show question

Question

What are heuristics?

Show answer

Answer

Heuristics are shortcuts we use that allow us to solve problems and make judgments efficiently.  

Show question

Question

Consider the following letters: YSCPOGLHOY. What problem-solving method should you use to figure out what word the letters form?

Show answer

Answer

Heuristics

Show question

Question

When we are more eager to seek evidence in favor of our ideas or beliefs than against them, this is called _____________.

Show answer

Answer

confirmation bias

Show question

Question

The ______________ is when we estimate the likelihood of an event based on whether or not it fits the prototypes we have formed of people, places, things, or events.

Show answer

Answer

representativeness heuristic

Show question

Question

 _______________ is when we estimate the likelihood of events based on how available they are in our memory or how vivid similar events occurred previously.

Show answer

Answer

Availability heuristic

Show question

Question

A person walks into the store with leather pants, a leather jacket, and tattoos all over. Are they more likely to be a biker or a school teacher? If a person assumed the person that walked in is a biker, they are using what type of decision-making problem? 

Show answer

Answer

Representativeness heuristic

Show question

Question

True or False? When we are too confident in the accuracy of our beliefs and judgments, it may lead to errors.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or False? The representativeness heuristic rarely leads to stereotypes and discrimination.


Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or False? We usually develop strong problem-solving and decision-making skills during early childhood. 


Show answer

Answer

False. 

Show question

Question

Why is it best to give a toddler only a couple of options for lunch rather than broadly asking them to decide what they want to eat?

Show answer

Answer

Young children might not be able to grasp abstract thinking and reasoning as this skill doesn't develop until adolescence.

Show question

Question

What are three questions you could ask yourself while choosing among the alternatives in decision-making?

Show answer

Answer

  • Is this solution compatible with my priorities?

  • Is there any risk involved in this solution and is it worth the risk?

  • Is this a practical solution or would it be far too difficult and even impossible?


Show question

Question

When does problem-solving happen?

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Answer

When a person is trying to find a solution to a problem, whether it's ongoing, intermittent, or a one-time failure

Show question

Question

When does decision-making happen?

Show answer

Answer

When a person has to choose between options (or not)

Show question

Question

What similarities do problem-solving and decision-making share?

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Answer

Identification and evaluation

Show question

Question

Which has a more gradual increase of brain activity?

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Answer

Decision-making

Show question

Question

What is the correct order of steps when problem-solving?

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Answer

Specify the problem, analyze the problem, formulate solutions, evaluate solutions, choose a solution, evaluate the outcome

Show question

Question

Why is evaluating the outcome an important step in problem-solving?

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Answer

It allows you to go back and make sure you found the right answer. If not, this gives you an opportunity to try to find another answer. 

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Question

Why is identifying alternatives an important step in decision-making?

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Answer

You fully understand all the options you are choosing between

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Question

Why is gathering information an important step in the decision-making process?

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Answer

You need to get more information in order to be knowledgable when making your decision

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Question

Can a child make decisions?

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Answer

Yes, but not well-thought out ones. Abstract thinking and reasoning are important steps in decision-making which are qualities that children are still developing. 

Show question

Question

What is a beneficial attribute about an algorithm?

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Answer

It will get you the right answer, guaranteed

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Question

What is something bad about the use of an algorithm?

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Answer

It can be very time-consuming

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Question

What is a beneficial attribute of heuristics?

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Answer

It can help you use mental shortcuts to get to the answer quicker

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Question

What is a negative attribute of heuristics?

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Answer

You won't always get the right answer

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Question

Why is confirmation bias a problem in decision-making?

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Answer

It causes us to see things a certain way (the way we want them to) and will find people or sources that will agree with what we believe, swaying our decision

Show question

Question

Why is overconfidence a problem when it comes to decision-making?

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Answer

Someone who is overconfident is more likely to make the wrong decision 

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