Problem-Solving Strategies and Obstacles

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From organizing your movie collection to deciding to buy a house, problem-solving makes up a large part of daily life. Problems can range from small (solving a single math equation on your homework assignment) to very large (planning your future career).

In cognitive psychology, the term problem-solving refers to the mental process that people go through to discover, analyze, and solve problems. The steps in the problem process include:

  • The discovery of the problem
  • The decision to tackle the issue
  • Understanding the problem
  • Researching the available options
  • Taking actions to achieve your goals

Before problem-solving can occur, it is important to first understand the exact nature of the problem itself. If your understanding of the issue is faulty, your attempts to resolve it will also be incorrect or flawed.

Problem-Solving Mental Processes

There are a number of mental processes at work during problem-solving. These include:

  • Perceptually recognizing a problem
  • Representing the problem in memory
  • Considering relevant information that applies to the current problem
  • Identify different aspects of the problem
  • Labeling and describing the problem

Problem-Solving Strategies

There are a number of different ways that people go about solving a problem. Some of these strategies might be used on their own, but people may also employ a range of approaches to figuring out and fixing a problem.


An algorithm is a step-by-step procedure that will always produce the correct solution. A mathematical formula is a good example of a problem-solving algorithm.

While an algorithm guarantees an accurate answer, it is not always the best approach to problem-solving.

This strategy is not practical for many situations because it can be so time-consuming. For example, if you were trying to figure out all of the possible number combinations to a lock using an algorithm, it would take a very long time.


A heuristic is a mental rule-of-thumb strategy that may or may not work in certain situations. Unlike algorithms, heuristics do not always guarantee a correct solution.

However, using this problem-solving strategy does allow people to simplify complex problems and reduce the total number of possible solutions to a more manageable set.

Trial and Error

A trial-and-error approach to problem-solving involves trying a number of different solutions and ruling out those that do not work. This approach can be a good option if you have a very limited number of options available.

If there are many different choices, you are better off narrowing down the possible options using another problem-solving technique before attempting trial-and-error.


In some cases, the solution to a problem can appear as a sudden insight. This can occur because you realize that the problem is actually similar to something that you have dealt with in the past. However, the underlying mental processes that lead to insight happen outside of awareness.

Obstacles in Problem-Solving

Of course, problem-solving is not a flawless process. There are a number of different obstacles that can interfere with our ability to solve a problem quickly and efficiently. Researchers have described a number of these mental obstacles, which include functional fixedness, irrelevant information, and assumptions.

  • Assumptions: When dealing with a problem, people often make assumptions about the constraints and obstacles that prevent certain solutions.
  • Functional fixedness: This term refers to the tendency to view problems only in their customary manner. Functional fixedness prevents people from fully seeing all of the different options that might be available to find a solution.
  • Irrelevant or misleading information: When you are trying to solve a problem, it is important to distinguish between information that is relevant to the issue and irrelevant data that can lead to faulty solutions. When a problem is very complex, the easier it is to focus on misleading or irrelevant information.
  • Mental set: A mental set is the tendency people have to only use solutions that have worked in the past rather than looking for alternative ideas. A mental set can often work as a heuristic, making it a useful problem-solving tool. However, mental sets can also lead to inflexibility, making it more difficult to find effective solutions.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sarathy V. Real world problem-solvingFront Hum Neurosci. 2018;12:261. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00261

  2. Gigerenzer G, Gaissmaier W. Heuristic decision makingAnnu Rev Psychol. 2011;62(1):451-482. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-120709-145346

  3. Chrysikou EG, Motyka K, Nigro C, Yang SI, Thompson-Schill SL. Functional fixedness in creative thinking tasks depends on stimulus modalityPsychol Aesthet Creat Arts. 2016;10(4):425‐435. doi:10.1037/aca0000050

  4. Huang F, Tang S, Hu Z. Unconditional perseveration of the short-term mental set in chunk decompositionFront Psychol. 2018;9:2568. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02568

Additional Reading
  • Schooler, J. W., Ohlsson, S., & Brooks, K. Thoughts Beyond Words: When Language Overshadows Insight. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 1993;122, 166-183.

  • Mayer, R. E. Thinking, Problem Solving, Cognition. (2nd Ed.). New York: W. H. Freeman and Company; 1992.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.