Thinking Skills in Psychology
In this article, we are going to be looking at a variety of tips and strategies that you can use to think more effectively. Learning how to improve your thinking skills will help to benefit many areas of your life, as you should find it easier and quicker to come up with solutions to the problems that you are presented with.
In particular, students should find the information on this page to be especially beneficial, as it will enable them to develop a level of critical analysis that is so often tested for by schools, colleges and universities.
Learning how to improve your thinking skills however, isn’t just about solving problems, as thinking skills can be useful in many aspects of life. For example, you may find that you are able to make better decisions, think in more creative ways and understand new information more easily.
Of course, these benefits should come as no surprise really, because no matter what you do in your life you are always thinking! So if you start to think better, you will soon notice that you start to live better too!
Right, so let’s get started with our first topic by looking at mental sets and how they can affect how you solve a problem.
A mental set involves using something that worked for you in the past to solve a problem which you are presented with now.
In other words, using the same approach on different types of problems. Mental sets can make it easier for you to solve a problem or harder for you to solve a problem.
For example, if you want to enter a room, you have a mental set which tells you how to open a door. As a result, you try to push or pull the door in order to get it open.
What you have done here is used an approach that worked for you in the past (i.e. pushing or pulling the door), to open a new door that you have never seen before (i.e. solve a new problem).
Now, let’s look at some examples of how a mental set can make it more difficult for you to solve a problem:
There are six eggs in a basket. Six people take one of the eggs each.
How is it that one egg can still be left in the basket?
What occurs once in June, once in July and twice in August?
Answer to question 1
The 6th person took the basket as well as the last egg.
Answer to question 2
The Letter U.
If you worked out the correct answers to these problems then well done! You are obviously very good at solving lateral thinking type questions, either that, or you have heard those questions before!
If you didn’t work out the correct answers, don’t worry, because these questions were deliberately designed to make it difficult for you to find the right answer. Here’s why…
Explanation of Question 1
In the first question, you are told that six people take one of the eggs each. So your mental set makes you think of six people each taking one egg out of the basket.
Your mental set probably did not tell you that you could take the basket with the egg in it. As a result, you were left confused as to why there could still be an egg in the basket if everyone had taken one.
Explanation of Question 2
In the second question, you might start thinking about what the months have in common or particular things of note which occur in those months.
Your mental set does not tell you to look at what “occurs once” in the letters of the months, which then causes you to approach the problem from completely the wrong angle.
Mental sets can create false assumptions
In both of the previous examples, a mental set was created by an implication.
In the first example, the implication is that each person takes the egg out of the basket. In the second example, the implication is that something happens during those months. These mental sets which interfere with your ability to find the solution are known as “false assumptions” because they create a belief that is not correct.
A well-known example of how mental sets can make it harder to solve a problem can be found with the Wright brothers story. In order for them to successfully create a flying airplane, they had to break the mental set which stated that wings must flap like a bird if one wishes to fly.
Many people before the Wright brothers had attempted to fly by making flapping wings but were unsuccessful in their approach. Again, their mental set hindered their ability to find a successful solution to a problem.
Functional fixedness involves thinking about something only in terms of its functionality rather than new ways in which it could be used.
For example, the American space agency, NASA, wanted to find a way for astronauts to be able to write notes in space. The trouble was, that in space ink pens don’t always work upside down.
After much research and millions of dollars, NASA eventually designed a pen that could be used in space even if the astronauts were upside down. The Russians were also looking for a solution to this problem. What did they do? They used a pencil, and by doing so saved themselves millions of dollars.
This example of functional fixedness shows how we can have mental sets for various items which only allow us to use that item in a particular way (i.e. the way it was designed to be used). This then fixes our attention on that purpose and excludes all others.
Note: This story is actually a myth or urban legend. Both the Soviets and the Americans initially used a pencil, but this was considered dangerous as if the tip broke off in space it could cause damage to electrical equipment or get in someone’s eye or be swallowed.
A space pen was developed, but developed independently outside of NASA, and then after NASA had tried the pen they eventually decided to use it as did the Soviets. But despite the myth, this story still provides us with a good example to better understand what functional fixedness is.
Every day we face various challenges, which, in order to overcome, we need to think about how to solve the problem that we are faced with. There are two main ways in which these problems can be solved:
• Heuristic approaches
Both of these have advantages and disadvantages, some of which we shall now explore.
An algorithm is defined as a step by step approach for solving a problem. In other words, an algorithm is a formula. If you follow the formula for a particular problem, then eventually you will be able to solve it.
For example, if you follow the instructions given to bake a cake, you will bake a cake. If you follow the formula given for a maths equation, you will solve that equation.
The trouble with algorithms is that you don’t always have a formula to work with, and so in order to solve your problem, you will have to work it out by yourself.
If you try to solve a problem, but you don’t have the formula for it, you will have to use a heuristic approach to find your answer. A heuristic approach means solving something by yourself by working out how to do it through trial and error.
For example, if you are trying to bake a cake but you do not have the instructions, a heuristic approach would involve experimenting with different ingredients until you are finally successful in creating the cake.
Although solving problems using a heuristic approach is much slower and less efficient than using a formula, sometimes heuristic approaches are needed when you do not already know how a problem can be solved.
Heuristic approaches have been used throughout history to create many of the things we now take for granted. A good example of this is the light bulb, which took many attempts before it was finally perfected.
A means-end analysis is a type of heuristic approach. It involves identifying a particular goal and then trying to find a way in which that goal can be obtained. For example, if you want a mortgage to buy a new home, you might be told by the mortgage lender that it will cost you $1000 per month spread over thirty years.
A means-end approach would involve first deciding upon how quickly you would like to pay off that mortgage (i.e. your goal).
If you decide that your goal is to pay off your mortgage in twenty years rather than thirty, you can then tell the mortgage lender that you would like a shorter mortgage, and by doing so, would be able to obtain your goal.
So a means-end analysis basically involves deciding upon what you want or hope to obtain, and then finding a way to get what you want.
A Systematic Approach to Thinking
When dealing with a large complex problem, or a problem that spans over a period of time (e.g. days, months, years), a systematic approach is called for.
A systematic approach involves five steps :
Let’s use an example of someone who is looking to lose some weight to demonstrate how a systematic approach would work.
1) Define the problem
The first step is to define the problem in as much detail as possible.
e.g. I want to lose twenty pounds in ten weeks.
In order to help you solve your problem, the next step is to gather as much information about it as possible.
Using the weight loss example, this could include researching the type of foods a person should eat on a diet and the types of exercise that they should do.
The incubation stage is equivalent to “sleeping on it” and letting the information you have researched sink in so that you can make sense of it.
The illumination stage occurs some period of time after the incubation stage. This stage is where you feel as though you have gained a good understanding of the information you have been researching so far.
During this stage, you start to feel as though you have come to some sort of conclusion related to your problem and can create a plan of action to solve it.
After the illumination stage, you put into practice the plan of action that you previously came up with to see if what you are doing is working.
So for example, if you are trying to lose weight and after your research you come to a conclusion as to the type of food that you should eat and how often you should exercise, the verification stage would involve monitoring what you are doing to see if it is effective in helping you lose weight.
The Basics of Logical Thinking
In order to think rationally (i.e. come to a conclusion based on facts rather than emotion), you need to think in a logical manner.
There are two main ways in which this can be achieved: inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning. Let’s explore both of these thinking skills in more detail.
Inductive reasoning involves observing something and then forming a conclusion based upon what has been observed. For example, 150 years ago, Gregor Mendel formed his theory of heredity based upon his observation of sweet pea plant characteristics. His conclusion was based on observation.
Inductive reasoning is the basic method of scientific investigation, and it is also something that we use throughout our entire life.
For example, if you are driving in your car and it starts making a noise, you may come to the conclusion that something is wrong and so you decide to get it serviced. This is inductive reasoning, forming a conclusion based on an observation.
Deductive reasoning involves forming a conclusion that follows from a premise. For example, deductive reasoning would involve saying something like:
“If this happens…then that will happen…which means the answer is…“
Deductive reasoning involves a process of investigation and is therefore built upon a series of arguments that allow you to make some sort of prediction.
Logical Thinking Errors
According to Freud, there is a type of thinking that occurs at the unconscious level which is neither inductive nor deductive.
Freud called this type of thinking “predicate thinking” (also called paleological thought) and it is something which is commonly used by preschool children.
Freud said that when two sentences have identical beginnings (i.e. identical predicates) the objects or people in those sentences become associated in an illogical manner. For example:
• A BMW is driven by rich people.
• A BMW is the type of car I drive.
• Therefore, I am a rich person.
In the example above, the conclusion seems to make sense, but because it is not based on facts, it is not a logical argument. Therefore, just because you drive a BMW, it doesn’t mean that you are rich.
Predicate thinking is one example of how logical thinking can be lead astray, although there are many other types of logical errors that can occur. Let’s look at some of these now:
Overgeneralization involves jumping to a conclusion without having all the facts to support it.
For example, if you are talking to someone and they appear rude and abrupt, you may come to the conclusion that they do not like you. However, this person may have just lost their job and so how they reacted to you was more out of frustration rather than anything personal towards you.
Overgeneralization is quite a common way in which logical errors can occur and causes people to form incorrect conclusions based on incomplete information.
An analogy is a comparison between two things that are similar in some way. This can lead you to believe that if they are alike in one way, that they must be alike in other ways. A false analogy occurs when this comparison results in an incorrect conclusion.
For example, water is liquid and is good for you to drink. Engine oil is also liquid and must therefore be good to drink.
In this example, two things have been compared which are similar in one way (liquid). The false analogy leads us to believe that they are also similar in other ways, when in fact they are not.
Appeal to authority
An appeal to authority involves backing up a weak argument by making reference to an authority figure. For example, you tell your friend that they should eat more green vegetables. When they ask you why, you say “Because the nutritionist on TV said they were good for you“.
In this case, rather than presenting factual information such as the nutritional content of green vegetables, you have chosen to back up your argument based on what someone else has said.
In other words, you didn’t really have the facts to back up your argument and so you made an “appeal to authority” to justify what you have said.
An appeal to authority can very easily cause you to form incorrect conclusions, especially if your source (i.e. the authority figure) is incorrect themselves.
Arguing in circles
Arguing in circles involves making an argument that doesn’t contain any real meaning to it. For example, you say to your friend “I like you“. They reply “why?” You say “because I really like you“, they say “why?“. You say “because you’re such a likable person“.
In this type of circular argument no factual information is given to back up a statement, and as a result, your friend cannot come to any firm conclusion as to why you like them.
It would have been better to say for example, “I like you because you have a great sense of humour and make me laugh“. Now it will be possible for your friend to form a correct conclusion as to why you like them.
Attack on character
An attack on character involves using something someone has done wrong in the past to discredit them or their argument. For example, John is in a debate and arguing his case, when his opponent counters by saying “John was caught stealing money at work two years ago, so you can’t trust anything he says“.
In this example, John’s argument has been discredited with a reference to his past, even though his past actions have nothing to do with his speech.
Creative thinking is the ability to come up with new ideas or new ways in which something can be done. The primary process by which this occurs is known as divergent thinking.
Divergent thinking results in the formation of many creative ideas when trying to solve a problem. There are two main ways in which this can occur:
i) Breaking mental sets
The process of divergent thinking often involves breaking a mental set in order to find a solution. A good example of this can be found with the Wright brothers. In order for them to create a flying airplane, they had to break the mental set that in order to fly you needed wings that flap like a bird’s wings.
After this mental set was broken, they were then able to explore new ideas and alternative ways to fly.
ii) Combining familiar things
Divergent thinking can also involve combining familiar things into new combinations. For example, Dumbo the elephant is a mixture of an elephant and the wings of a bird. The result of this creative thought process is a flying elephant.
Whereas divergent thinking results in the formation of many new possible solutions to a problem, convergent thinking generally results in a single solution to a problem.
For example, if you are given a multiple choice question, then you would have to use convergent thinking because you are trying to find the correct answer to that question.
If however, you were given a question that asked for new ways in which something could be improved, then you would use divergent thinking because you are required to provide more than one answer to something where there is no predefined “correct” answer.
Convergent thinking is therefore characterized by thought that uses both inductive (i.e. what you observe) and deductive (i.e. what the evidence leads you to believe) logic.
Some psychologists, such as Max Wertheimer, believed that the best type of creative thought came from using both divergent and convergent thinking. A type of thought he called “productive thinking”.
Wertheimer came to this conclusion after thinking about how Albert Einstein came up with the Theory Of Relativity. In order for Einstein to come up with this theory, he first used divergent thinking to create ideas which were not known or accepted by physics at the time.
Einstein then employed convergent thinking in order to back up his ideas with theory that would be accepted by his peers.
Quality of Creative Thought
The quality of creative thinking can be judged by three criteria:
This refers to the amount of work that a person produces. The more work they produce, the more productive they are.
Originality is how different something is compared to the things around it. The more different or novel it is, the more originality is possesses.
Flexibility refers to the ability to modify your beliefs based on new information. An inflexible person forms an idea in their mind and will not change it despite evidence to the contrary.
By combining all three criteria, we can see that high quality creative thought is a result of hard work, original ideas and a willingness to modify those ideas if needed.
A concept is a way of organizing information into a mental category.
For example, if you see a bowl containing apples and bananas, you can quickly categorize that visual information into a bowl, apples and bananas. Each of these is a concept, because it is a way that we mentally organize what we see.
If we explore a concept individually, such as the concept of an apple, we start to think about things which make up that concept such as the taste of the apple, its color and its texture.
So concepts can give us both a broad overview of something when using many concepts (e.g. bowl, apple, banana), or they can give us a more detailed picture when looking at an individual concept (i.e. the attributes that something possesses).
In psychology, there are three main types of concepts :
Each of these concepts can affect how we organize the information we receive from the outside world, so let’s look at them now.
1) Conjunctive concepts
A conjunctive concept is something that groups together individual attributes to create a whole. For example, an apple is a conjunctive concept because an apple (the whole) is an apple because of its individual attributes such as its skin color, shape and taste.
Positive & negative exemplars
As children, when we begin to create mental concepts we can sometimes become confused when two different things contain similar attributes. For example, a child who is learning the concept of a dog may incorrectly label a seal as a dog because it barks like a dog.
If the child is then told by their parent that a seal is not a dog because seals do not have legs like dogs do, the child is said to have received a negative exemplar. A negative exemplar simply means an incorrect example, and helps to shape the correct concept of a dog in the child’s mind.
If the child were to then see a dog barking, then this would be classified as a positive exemplar because it is a correct example of a dog that shapes the child’s concept of what dogs are.
So basically, what this all means is that when we are growing up we group together bits of information into concepts so that we can easily identify what we see.
However, sometimes, the concepts that we create for one thing (e.g. a dog) may seem applicable to other things (e.g. a seal). This can result in confusion and the formation of incorrect concepts (e.g. a seal is a dog because it barks like a dog).
Therefore, in order to create correct concepts (e.g. a dog is a dog) we sometimes need to be exposed to positive exemplars (correct examples) and negative exemplars (incorrect examples) to fine tune the concept we have already formed. Without such examples, we would continue to group similar things together even though they are completely different.
It is also worth remembering that whenever we receive a negative exemplar of something (e.g. a dog is not a seal) we also receive a positive exemplar (e.g. a seal is a seal)
2) Disjunctive concepts
A disjunctive concept looks at whether individual attributes create a whole and is therefore useful in creating a concept of something.
For example, you go to a party with a friend and your friend says that they won’t drink any beer or spirits. Later, you see your friend being offered a drink by someone and they refuse the drink. As a result, you conclude that your friend was offered a beer or a spirit which is why they refused the drink.
In this example, the disjunctive concept is “drinks your friend will not drink”. So what you have done here to create the disjunctive concept is to use bits of information (e.g. beer & spirits) to form a concept (e.g. drinks your friend will not drink).
Disjunctive concepts are viewed in either-or terms, so that a concept is formed either because of X or Y.
3) Relational concepts
A relational concept looks at the connection between objects or ideas and often involves an act of comparison.
For example, if you work at a restaurant and someone leaves you a small tip, you may call them a “cheapskate”. But if someone leaves you a large tip, you may call them a “big spender”.
The two concepts (cheapskate & big spender) are relational because one person tips more than the other person.
Another example of a relational concept can be found within the structure of words. For example, “really good“, “very good” and “amazingly good“, are all relational concepts because they relate to something being “good”.