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The problems with problem solving: Reflections on the rise, current status, and possible future of a cognitive research paradigm

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journal contribution
posted on 25.08.2016, 00:00 authored by Stellan Ohlsson
The research paradigm invented by Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon in the late 1950s dominated the study of problem solving for more than three decades. But in the early 1990s, problem solving ceased to drive research on complex cognition. As part of this decline, Newell and Simon’s most innovative research practices – especially their method for inducing subjects’ strategies from verbal protocols - were abandoned. In this essay, I summarize Newell and Simon’s theoretical and methodological innovations and explain why their strategy identification method did not become a standard research tool. I argue that the method lacked a systematic way to aggregate data, and that Newell and Simon’s search for general problem solving strategies failed. Paradoxically, the theoretical vision that led them to search elsewhere for general principles led researchers away from studies of complex problem solving. Newell and Simon’s main enduring contribution is the theory that people solve problems via heuristic search through a problem space. This theory remains the centerpiece of our understanding of how people solve unfamiliar problems, but it is seriously incomplete. In the early 1970s, Newell and Simon suggested that the field should focus on the question where problem spaces and search strategies come from. I propose a breakdown of this overarching question into five specific research questions. Principled answers to those questions would expand the theory of heuristic search into a more complete theory of human problem solving.


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This is a copy of an article published in the Journal of Problem Solving. © 2012 University of Illinois at Chicago.


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