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Problem solving is a mental process and is part of the larger problem process that includes problem finding and problem shaping. Consideredthe most complex of all intellectual functions, problem solving has been defined as higher-order cognitive process that requires the modulation and control of more routine or fundamental skills. Problem solving occurs when an organism or an artificial intelligence system needs to move from a given state to a desired goal state.


The nature of human problem solving methods has been studied by psychologists over the past hundred years. There are several methods of studying problem solving, including; introspection, behaviorism, simulation, computer modeling and experiment.

Beginning with the early experimental work of the Gestaltist in Germanymarker (e.g. Duncker, 1935 ), and continuing through the 1960s and early 1970s, research on problem solving typically conducted relatively simple, laboratory tasks (e.g. Duncker's "X-ray" problem; Ewert & Lambert's 1932 "disk" problem, later known as Tower of Hanoi) that appeared novel to participants (e.g. Mayer, 1992 ). Various reasons account for the choice of simple novel tasks: they had clearly defined optimal solutions, they were solvable within a relatively short time frame, researchers could trace participants' problem-solving steps, and so on. The researchers made the underlying assumption, of course, that simple tasks such as the Tower of Hanoi captured the main properties of "real world" problems, and that the cognitive processes underlying participants' attempts to solve simple problems were representative of the processes engaged in when solving "real world" problems. Thus researchers used simple problems for reasons of convenience, and thought generalizations to more complex problems would become possible. Perhaps the best-known and most impressive example of this line of research remains the work by Allen Newell and Herbert Simon .

Simple laboratory-based tasks may be useful in explicating the steps of logic and reasoning that underlie problem solving; however, they omit the complexity and emotional valence of "real-world" problems. In clinical psychology, researchers have focused on the role of emotions in problem solving (D'Zurilla & Goldfried, 1971; D'Zurilla & Nezu, 1982), demonstrating that poor emotional control can disrupt focus on the target task and impede problem resolution (Rath, Langenbahn, Simon, Sherr, & Diller, 2004). In this conceptualization, human problem solving consists of two related processes: problem orientation, the motivational/attitudinal/affective approach to problematic situations and problem-solving skills, the actual cognitive-behavioral steps, which, if successfully implemented, lead to effective problem resolution. Working with individuals with frontal lobe injuries, neuropsychologists have discovered that deficits in emotional control and reasoning can be remediated, improving the capacity of injured persons to resolve everyday problems successfully (Rath, Simon, Langenbahn, Sherr, & Diller, 2003).


In Europe, two main approaches have surfaced, one initiated by Donald Broadbent (1977; see Berry & Broadbent, 1995) in the United Kingdom and the other one by Dietrich Dörner (1975, 1985; see Dörner & Wearing, 1995) in Germany. The two approaches have in common an emphasis on relatively complex, semantically rich, computerized laboratory tasks, constructed to resemble real-life problems. The approaches differ somewhat in their theoretical goals and methodology, however. The tradition initiated by Broadbent emphasizes the distinction between cognitive problem-solving processes that operate under awareness versus outside of awareness, and typically employs mathematically well-defined computerized systems. The tradition initiated by Dörner, on the other hand, has an interest in the interplay of the cognitive, motivational, and social components of problem solving, and utilizes very complex computerized scenarios that contain up to 2,000 highly interconnected variables (e.g., Dörner, Kreuzig, Reither & Stäudel's 1983 LOHHAUSEN project; Ringelband, Misiak & Kluwe, 1990). Buchner (1995) describes the two traditions in detail.

To sum up, researchers' realization that problem-solving processes differ across knowledge domains and across levels of expertise (e.g. Sternberg, 1995) and that, consequently, findings obtained in the laboratory cannot necessarily generalize to problem-solving situations outside the laboratory, has during the past two decades led to an emphasis on real-world problem solving. This emphasis has been expressed quite differently in North America and Europe, however. Whereas North American research has typically concentrated on studying problem solving in separate, natural knowledge domains, much of the European research has focused on novel, complex problems, and has been performed with computerized scenarios (see Funke, 1991, for an overview).

USA and Canada

In North America, initiated by the work of Herbert Simon on learning by doing in semantically rich domains (e.g. Anzai & Simon, 1979; Bhaskar & Simon, 1977), researchers began to investigate problem solving separately in different natural knowledge domains – such as physics, writing, or chess playing – thus relinquishing their attempts to extract a global theory of problem solving (e.g. Sternberg & Frensch, 1991). Instead, these researchers have frequently focused on the development of problem solving within a certain domain, that is on the development of expertise (e.g. Anderson, Boyle & Reiser, 1985; Chase & Simon, 1973; Chi, Feltovich & Glaser, 1981).

Areas that have attracted rather intensive attention in North America include such diverse fields as:

Characteristics of difficult problems

As elucidated by Dietrich Dörner and later expanded upon by Joachim Funke, difficult problems have some typical characteristics that can be summarized as follows:

  • Intransparency (lack of clarity of the situation)
    • commencement opacity
    • continuation opacity
  • Polytely (multiple goals)
    • inexpressiveness
    • opposition
    • transience
  • Complexity (large numbers of items, interrelations and decisions)
  • Dynamics (time considerations)
    • temporal constraints
    • temporal sensitivity
    • phase effects
    • dynamic unpredictability

The resolution of difficult problems requires a direct attack on each of these characteristics that are encountered.

In reform mathematics, greater emphasis is placed on problem solving relative to basic skills, where basic operations can be done with calculators. However some "problems" may actually have standard solutions taught in higher grades. For example, kindergarteners could be asked how many fingers are there on all the gloves of 3 children, which can be solved with multiplication.

Some problem-solving techniques

  1. Divide and conquer: break down a large, complex problem into smaller, solvable problems.
  2. Hill-climbing strategy, (also called gradient descent/ascent, difference reduction, greedy algorithm) - attempting at every step to move closer to the goal situation. The problem with this approach is that many challenges require temporarily moving farther away from the goal state. For example, traveling 1,000 miles to the west might require driving a few miles east to an airport. (see river crossing puzzle).
  3. Means-ends analysis, more effective than hill-climbing, requires the setting of subgoals based on the process of getting from the initial state to the goal state when solving a problem.
  4. Trial-and-error (also called guess and check)
  5. Brainstorming
  6. Morphological analysis
  7. Method of focal objects
  8. Lateral thinking
  9. George Pólya's techniques in How to Solve It
  10. Research: study what others have written about the problem (and related problems). Maybe there's already a solution?
  11. Assumption reversal (write down any assumptions about the problem, and then reverse them all)
  12. Analogy: has a similar problem (possibly in a different field) been solved before?
  13. Reduction : transforming the problem into another problem for which solutions exist.
  14. Hypothesis testing: assuming a possible explanation to the problem and trying to prove the assumption.
  15. Constraint examination: are you assuming a constraint which does not really exist?
  16. Incubation: input the details of a problem into the mind, then stop focusing on it. The subconscious mind will continue to work on the problem, and the solution might just "pop up" while doing something else
  17. Build (or write) one or more abstract models of the problem
  18. Try to prove that the problem cannot be solved. Where the proof breaks down can be the starting point for resolving it
  19. Get help from friends or online problem solving community (e.g. 3form, InnoCentive)
  20. delegation: delegating the problem to others.
  21. Root Cause Analysis
  22. Working Backwards (Halpern, 2002)
  23. Forward-Looking Strategy (Halpern, 2002)
  24. Simplification (Halpern, 2002)
  25. Generalization (Halpern, 2002)
  26. Specialization (Halpern, 2002)
  27. Random Search (Halpern, 2002)
  28. Split-Half Method (Halpern, 2002)
  29. The GROW model
  30. TRIZ 40 Principles: Segmentation, Extraction, Local Quality, Asymmetry, Consolidation, Universality, Nesting, Counterbalance, Prior Conteraction, Prior Action, Cushion in Advance, Equipoteniality, Do It in Reverse, Spheroidality, Dynamicity, Partial or Excessive Action, Transition to a New Dimension, Mechanical Vibration, Periodic Action, Continuity of Useful Action, Rushing Through, Convert Harm to Benefit, Feedback, Mediator, Self Service, Copying, Disposable, Replacement ofMechanical system, Pneumatic or Hydraulic construction, Flexible Membranes or Thin Films, Porous Material, Changing the Color, Homogeneity, Rejecting and Regenerating Parts, Transformation of Properties, Phase Transition, Thermal Expansion, Accelerated Oxidation, Inert Environment, Composite Materials (Altshuller, 1973, 1984, 1994)
  31. Eight Disciplines Problem Solving
  32. Southbeach Notation
  33. The WWXXD Method: This method requires you to ask yourself What Would XX Do, where XX is the person in question. Such variations of this method are the WWJD, What Would Jesus Do, WWUJD, What Would Uncle Jesse Do, WWCND, What would Chuck Norris Do, and WWJBD, What Would Jack Bauer Do. This method allows you to frame the question, resolve the question and act upon it in a similar way to the person in question.

Example applications

Problem solving is of crucial importance in engineering when products or processes fail, so corrective action can be taken to prevent further failures. Perhaps of more value, problem solving can be applied to a product or process prior to an actual fail event ie. a potential problem can be predicted, analyzed and mitigation applied so the problem never actually occurs. Techniques like Failure Mode Effects Analysis can be used to proactively reduce the likelihood of problems occurring. Forensic engineering is an important technique of failure analysis which involves tracing product defects and flaws. Corrective action can then be taken to prevent further failures.

See also


  1. *
  2. 2007 Draft, Washington State Revised Mathematics Standard


  • Worldcat Library Catalog
  • D’Zurilla, T. J., & Goldfried, M. R. (1971). Problem solving and behavior modification. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 78, 107-126.
  • D'Zurilla, T. J., & Nezu, A. M. (1982). Social problem solving in adults. In P. C. Kendall (Ed.), Advances in cognitive-behavioral research and therapy (Vol. 1, pp.201–274). New York: Academic Press.
  • Rath J. F.; Langenbahn D. M.; Simon D.; Sherr R. L.; Fletcher J.; Diller L. (2004). The construct of problem solving in higher level neuropsychological assessment and rehabilitation. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, 19, 613-635. doi:10.1016/j.acn.2003.08.006
  • Rath, J. F.; Simon, D.; Langenbahn, D. M.; Sherr, R. L.; Diller, L. (2003). Group treatment of problem-solving deficits in outpatients with traumatic brain injury: A randomised outcome study. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, 13, 461-488.

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