Monday, August 26, 2013

Creative Problem Solving Pt. III - Moments of Insight by Constraint Relaxation

In the previous post we continued learning about creative problem solving through moments of insights. Prior knowledge (mental sets) biases our initial representation of a problem.[1] Oftentimes the initial representation is useful in solving the problem. However, if the initial problem representation does not provide a solution for this particular problem an impasse will result.[2] The problem solver will feel as if the problem is unsolvable.[3] A representational change is necessary in order to overcome the impasse[4]. Moment of insight describes the “aha!” moment when one overcomes the impasse.[5]

Ollinger et al. theorize that during the impasse unconscious processes decrease the activation of repeatedly accessed (but incorrect!) solution procedures.[6] As a result, less active and potentially correct procedures emerge.[7] This theory fits well with evidence of incubation as a means of increasing creative problem solving.[8] Incubation is exactly that; putting a problem aside momentarily for the incorrect strategy to decrease in priming and allowing correct strategies that have been hindered by the repetitive activation of the incorrect strategy to come into awareness.[9]

Representational Change through Constraint Relaxation
Constraint relaxation is one of three known strategies helpful for representational changes that lead to insight. When faced with a problem, problem solvers think to see if it reminds them of one they have previously encountered.[10] They then impose constraints on the new problem relevant to the previously encountered problems.[11] If these constraints are useful for solving this particular problem, then a solution will likely be found.[12] However, if the constraint is inappropriate then the problem solver will likely face an impasse.[13] Therefore relaxing these constraints is a useful strategy for overcoming the impasse.[14]

For example, seeking to increase your revenue in a business venture is normally subject to the constraint of limiting liabilities.[15] However, if incurring liabilities in the short term is overshadowed by the prospect of gain in the long term, then it might be necessary to incur extra liabilities. In this scenario problem solving is less about searching current possibilities (short-term profit) than redefining what to search for. To make long term profits perhaps one should search for emergent markets with growth potential and infrastructure or personnel investments to make first.

In the next post, we will discuss chunk decomposition as another means of achieving representational changes necessary for moments of insights.

[1] Günther Knoblich, et al. Constraint Relaxation and Chunk Decomposition in Insight Problem Solving, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 25.6 (1999), 1535.
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Michael Ollinger, Gary Jones, and Gunther Knoblich, Investigating the Effect of Mental set on Insight Problem Solving, Experimental Psychology Vol. 55 (2008), 271.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] See Knoblich, supra note 1.
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Id. (This example was loosely based off Knoblich's analogy of opening a door normally under a constraint of not breaking it which needs to be relaxed in certain situations, like an emergency.)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Creative Problem Solving Pt. II - Getting out of Mental Ruts

In the previous post we learned about mental set, the tendency to solve problems in a fixed way.[1] We learned that mental set can lead one into a mental rut, an inability to switch from an inappropriate solution plan to a more productive one.[2]

Today we will learn about the concept of insight, a sudden understanding or unexpected development of a creative idea. It is often known as an “aha!” moment or as I like to think of it, the Geordi La Forge moment. Since mental set can inhibit the achievement of insight, it is important to examine both concepts together.

Understanding Insight
Insight moments do not have to give rise to profound ideas like the theory of gravity, they merely have to be sudden and unexpected.[3]

An insight can also be thought of as a restructuring one's representation of the problem. Every time we face a problem we engage into a set of operations that draw on previous knowledge or experience (mental sets) on how to solve the problem. Whenever an initial representation leads to a solution, then it requires no restructuring. However, as discussed in the previous post on mental rut, an inappropriate plan will not only fail to lead to a solution, it will also continue to act as a hindrance to the correct solution - a metaphorical roadblock. This is because our prior knowledge or mental sets cause a fixation on certain aspects of the problem blocking more important aspects that are necessary to solve the problem.[4] Therefore, mental rut is analogous to a truck being stuck in the mud. When one persists with a counterproductive strategy they are merely spinning their wheels and getting further entrenched in the mud (the incorrect representation).[5]

Representational Change – Key to Overcoming Mental Ruts
The key to overcoming the impasse and solving the problem is a representational change.[6]

Representational Change through Incubation
Incubation, a term we are already familiar with, is a good strategy for achieving representational changes.[7] Incubation encompasses putting the problem aside momentarily and waiting for the incorrect strategy to decrease in priming, in turn allowing more correct strategies that have been hindered by the repetitive activation of the incorrect strategy to come into awareness.[8] For this reason when we are doing an unrelated activity we often find a sudden solution to a problem we had momentarily shelved.

Sticking with our truck in mud analogy, incubation represents the idea that rather than continue to spin your wheels, it is preferable to instead wait until conditions become more favorable for getting the truck out of the mud.[9]

The next post will address how to achieve representational changes through strategies such as chunk decomposition, and constraint relaxation, as well as more on incubation.

[1] Michael Ollinger, Gary Jones, and Gunther Knoblich, Investigating the Effect of Mental set on Insight Problem Solving, Experimental Psychology Vol. 55 (2008), 269.
[2] Deborah K. Smith, David B. Paradice, Steven M. Smith, Prepare Your Mind for Creativity, Communications of the ACM 43.7 (2000), 113.
[4] See Ollinger, supra note 1, at 271.
[5] See Steven Smith, supra note 3, at 245.
[6] See Ollinger, supra note 1, at 271.
[7] Id.
[8] See Steven Smith, supra note 3, at 241.
[9] Id. at 245.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Creative Problem Solving – Mental Sets & Mental Rut

In the previous two posts we discussed conceptual expansion, the creative process of accessing highly specific examples of a particular domain as a starting point for creative behavior.

Today we will learn about the concept of mental set. “Mental set is the tendency to solve certain problems in a fixed way.[1]” Mental set is important in understanding insight (Ah ha! moments), the act of overcoming an impasse that previously stopped progress on a creative problem.[2]

Mental Set & the Water Jug Problem
The effects of mental set were tested using water jug problems where participants had to measure a particular amount of water by pouring amongst the jugs.[3] For example, in one set of problems (set Red) three water jugs A, B, and C are given, each with respective capacities of 21 (A), 127 (B), and 3 (C). The goal is to measure 100 into one of the jugs. One way of solving the problem (measuring 100) would be to fill B up with water, and then from B fill C up twice. And then with what is left of B (now 121) fill up A. Examiners create many sets of problems that follow this exact same solution method (B-2C-A). However, an alternative set (Set Blue) can be solved using a much simpler method. For example, take the problem 23 (A), 49 (B), 3 (C) with a goal of measuring 20. This problem could similarly be solved using the B-2C-A method, however, a much simpler solution is to fill A with water and then empty it out in C (A-C).

Experimental groups first primed with Set Red questions almost never used the simpler solution when given Set Blue questions. However, the control group only given Set Blue question almost always used the simpler solution. Therefore, the repeated success of the method initially used by the experimental group blinded them to a much simpler solution.

Repeated Successful Attempts Blinds us to Alternative Methods
Mental set stands for the proposition “that the repeated application of successful method makes blind any alternative approach.[4]” Mental set can be conceptualized as a set of “procedures.[5]” These procedures are sets of rules that specify a method to be used when faced with particular problems. The more a procedure is used successfully the stronger the mental set will become consequently increasing the likelihood it will be selected in the future[6].

Mental Rut
Mental sets can lead us into a mental rut[7]. Mental rut describes the inability to “switch from an inappropriate solution to a more productive one.”[8] Prior repeated activation of a successful solution can make it impossible to access information leading to success when a problem is similar to others you have faced but cannot be solved with the same solution[9]. It can also be assumed that repeated failure of high probability procedures will weaken the mental set and allow the possibility for less primed procedures to be selected.[10] However a course of repeated failure could be probatively lengthy.

In the next post we will learn strategies for getting out of mental ruts and solving insight problems. These strategies include incubation (which you remember from an earlier post!), chunk decomposition, and constraint relaxation.

[1] Michael Ollinger, Gary Jones, and Gunther Knoblich, Investigating the Effect of Mental set on Insight Problem Solving, Experimental Psychology Vol. 55 (2008), 269.
[2] I often analogize Insight with the character Geordi La Forge (from Star Trek). It’s that moment when you save the day by realizing that if you shift power from the sub-capacitor you can use warp drive without diverting power from the shields., For more discussion on the interplay of Mental Set and Insight see generally Id.
[3] Id. at 269-70.
[4] Id. at 270.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Deborah K. Smith, David B. Paradice, Steven M. Smith, Prepare Your Mind for Creativity, Communications of the ACM 43.7 (2000), 113.
[9] See Ollinger, supra note 1, at 271.
[10] Id.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Abstract Exemplars Provide More Creativity

In the previous post we learned about conceptual expansion, a common form of creative behavior. Conceptual expansion is the process of accessing highly specific examples of a particular domain as a starting point for creative behavior. Conception expansion provides for rapid solutions that are likely to be accepted by the target audience due to familiarity. However, a common drawback is that the new creative product may be constrained by unnecessary properties of the specific exemplar.
Today we will learn about the benefits of using more abstract (as opposed to specific) exemplars as a starting point for creative behavior.

Abstract Exemplars Provide More Creativity
Thomas Ward found evidence to suggest that the way in which you frame a creative task can affect the creativity of the product produced.[1] Specifically, more abstract exemplars, instead of specific ones, will allow for greater creativity.[2] In his study Ward asked participants to imagine and draw an alien that might exist on a different planet.[3] He found that participants that were instructed to consider that the aliens must need to survive and navigate the conditions of their environments attained higher ratings of creativity in their drawings than both participants who were not instructed at all and participants who were instructed to think of specific earth animals as examples. As Ward put it,

Because stored properties at higher levels of abstraction would be less specific and constraining and allow a wider range of possible instantiation (e.g., generic sense or organs vs. two eyes symmetrically placed in the head), more original products would be expected to result when people access knowledge in these more abstract ways.[4]

These findings on conceptual expansion, also known as the path-of-least-resistance model, has been replicated in other domains with participants similarly imagining novel fruits and tools based off of specific exemplars vs. more conceptualized properties. And similarly those who used a more conceptualized abstract approach showed more creativity.[5]

Real Life Examples
These findings can be generalized to real word examples. For instance, if one was trying to think of a new animated comedy series to make they could think of the best current series. Take for example Family Guy. Family Guy is an adult cartoon featured around an American family with a talking pet, full of absurd and unrealistic plot events, crass humor, jokes focusing of pop culture and current events, and the comedy styling of Seth McFarlane. If you were trying to create a new show, one could think of Family Guy as an exemplar of a successful comedy and slightly tweak it to create a new product. The extreme similarity between shows like Family Guy, Cleveland Show, and American Dad provides support for this path-of-least-resistance model. And indeed, the common critique of these shows in fact is that they lack creativity.

However if more abstract exemplars were used, more creative comedy shows could have easily been created. For instance, perhaps the studio execs could just ask a writer to produce a show that serves the same demographics. The show must include humor that appeals to both an older audience, but enough silliness to draw in younger audiences as well. And also instruct the writer to remember that since it is a cartoon they can have less realistic features in the show. Such a show will certainly be more rated as more original or creative than American Dad or The Cleveland Show. But will it be more successful?

A show that greatly deviates from the Family Guy strategy may not be accepted as an adult-themed comedy cartoon just in the same way that aliens that deviate too far from known earth animals might not be recognized as an animal at all.[6] Therefore, a good balance of both approaches can be suggested. An idea of an existing business venture may be used as a starting point for a new business venture – however an eye should be kept at more abstract considerations of what made the business venture successful instead of blindly accepting potentially needless properties of the exemplar business venture. [7]

[2] Id.
[3] Id. at 6.
[4]Id. at 8.
[5] Thomas B. Ward, Cognition, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship, Journal of Business Venturing 19.2 (2004), 183.
[6] Id. 184-85.
[7] Id. at 185.