4.2 Problem Solving and Decision Making - Cognition, Consciousness, and Language

MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review - Kaplan Test Prep 2021–2022

4.2 Problem Solving and Decision Making
Cognition, Consciousness, and Language


After Chapter 4.2, you will be able to:

· Identify examples of functional fixedness, mental sets, trial-and-error problem solving, algorithms, and deductive reasoning

· Recall key fallacies and biases, including base rate fallacy, disconfirmation principle, confirmation bias, overconfidence, and belief perseverance

· Describe models of intellectual functioning and tests of intellectual ability

· Explain the availability and representativeness heuristics

Every day you are faced with problems. Many of these problems you solve without any real conscious thought about what is happening. However, much like the scientific method, problem solving itself has a process. First, we must frame the problem; that is, we create a mental image or schematic of the issue. Then, we generate potential solutions and begin to test them. These potential solutions may be derived from a mental set, which is the tendency to approach similar problems in the same way. Once solutions have been tested, we evaluate the results, considering other potential solutions that may have been easier or more effective in some way.

Key Concept

The first step in problem solving (framing the problem) may seem obvious; however, when we get “stuck” on a problem, it is most often because the manner in which we have framed the problem is inefficient or not useful.

Problem solving can be impeded by an inappropriate mental set, as well as by functional fixedness, which is demonstrated by Duncker’s candle problem. Consider the following scenario: You walk into a room and see a box of matches, some tacks, and a candle. Your task is to mount the candle on the wall so that it can be used without the wax dropping on the floor. Before reading on, try to solve the problem.

Most people find the task challenging. You might have thought of tacking the candle to the wall, but that solution doesn’t work because the wax would still drop to the floor. The key is to realize that the matchbox can serve not just as a container for the matches, but as a holder for the candle. The solution, therefore, is to tack the box to the wall and put the candle in the box. Functional fixedness can thus be defined as the inability to consider how to use an object in a nontraditional manner.


In psychology, different approaches to problem solving include trial-and-error, algorithms, deductive reasoning, and inductive reasoning.


Trial-and-error is a less sophisticated type of problem solving in which various solutions are tried until one is found that seems to work. While an educated approach may be used, this type of problem solving is usually only effective when there are relatively few possible solutions.


An algorithm is a formula or procedure for solving a certain type of problem. Algorithms can be mathematical or a set of instructions, designed to automatically produce the desired solution.


Deductive reasoning is the key to success on the MCAT, especially in the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) section. Chapter 6 of MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Review focuses on formal logic, the cornerstone of deductive reasoning.

Deductive Reasoning

Deductive (top-down) reasoning starts from a set of general rules and draws conclusions from the information given. An example of deductive reasoning is a logic puzzle, as shown in Figure 4.4. In these puzzles, one has to synthesize a list of logical rules to come up with the single possible solution to the problem.

ImageFigure 4.4. A Logic Puzzle GridLogic puzzles are applications of deductive reasoning in which only one possible solution can be deduced based on the information given.

MCAT Expertise

Remember that a deduction is a solution that must be true based on the information given. This is why answers on the MCAT that merely might be true (but don’t have to be) are never the correct answer.

Inductive Reasoning

Inductive (bottom-up) reasoning seeks to create a theory via generalizations. This type of reasoning starts with specific instances, and then draws a conclusion from them.


We make decisions every day. Some are insignificant: What should I wear today? Others are very important: Where am I going to apply to medical school? Decision making is a complicated process, but we use a number of tools, such as heuristics, biases, intuition, and emotions, to speed up or simplify the process. While useful from a time and complexity standpoint, these tools can also lead us to short-sighted or problematic solutions.


Heuristics are simplified principles used to make decisions; they are colloquially called "rules of thumb." The availability heuristic is a heuristic used when we base the likelihood of an event on how easily examples of that event come to mind. Often, the use of this heuristic leads us to a correct decision, but not always. As an example, answer the following question: Are there more words in the English language that start with the letter “K” or that have “K” as their third letter?

Most people respond that there are more words that begin with the letter “K” than have “K” as their third letter. In fact, there are actually at least twice as many words in English that have “K” as the third letter than begin with “K.” Most people approach this question by trying to think of words that fit into each category. Because we so often classify words by their first letter, most people can easily think of words beginning with “K.” However, most people have a harder time thinking of words with "K" as their third letter. Thus, in this case, the availability heuristic tends to lead to an incorrect answer.

MCAT Expertise

Detail questions on the MCAT often have wrong answer choices that are stated in the passage, but that fail to answer the question posed. According to the availability heuristic, students who do not truly problem solve on MCAT questions will be tempted by these familiar-sounding answers merely because they can recall that statement being mentioned in the passage. Don’t forget to use your Outline effectively, as described in Chapter 4 of MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Review!

The representativeness heuristic involves categorizing items on the basis of whether they fit the prototypical, stereotypical, or representative image of the category. For example, consider a standard coin that is flipped ten times in a row and lands on heads every time. What is the probability of the coin landing on heads the next time? Mathematically, the probability must still be 50 percent, but most individuals will either overestimate the probability based on the pattern that has been established, or underestimate the probability with the logic that the number of heads and tails must “even out.” Hence, like the availability heuristic, the use of the representativeness heuristic can sometimes lead us astray. Using prototypical or stereotypical factors while ignoring actual numerical information is called the base rate fallacy.

While heuristics can lead us astray, they are essential to speedy and effective decision making. Heuristics are often used by experts in a given field. For instance, to win at chess, one must be able to think several moves ahead. On any particular turn, there may be 15 or 20 possible moves, each one of which may have multiple consequences; analyzing every possibility would take far too long. There are heuristics, however, that can quickly rule out some of the possible moves: the king must be protected, it is generally good to control the center squares, and pieces should not be put in danger when possible. In this way, heuristics provide a more efficient—although sometimes inaccurate—method for problem solving.

Bias and Overconfidence

When a potential solution to a problem fails during testing, this solution should be discarded. This is known as the disconfirmation principle: the evidence obtained from testing demonstrated that the solution does not work. However, the presence of a confirmation bias may prevent an individual from eliminating this solution. Confirmation bias is the tendency to focus on information that fits an individual’s beliefs, while rejecting information that goes against them. Confirmation bias also contributes to overconfidence, or a tendency to erroneously interpret one’s decisions, knowledge, and beliefs as infallible. An additional type of bias is hindsight bias, which is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to predict the outcome of events that already happened. The similar phenomenon of belief perseverance refers to the inability to reject a particular belief despite clear evidence to the contrary. Together, confirmation bias, overconfidence, hindsight bias, and belief perseverance can seriously impede a person’s analysis of available evidence.


Intuition can be defined as the ability to act on perceptions that may not be supported by available evidence. Often, people may have beliefs that are not necessarily supported by evidence, but that a person “feels” to be correct. Intuition is often developed by experience. For example, an emergency room physician, over the course of seeing thousands of patients with chest pain, may develop a keen sense of which patients are actually having a heart attack without even looking at an electrocardiogram (EKG) or a patient’s vital signs. This intuition can be more accurately described by the recognition-primed decision model: the doctor’s brain is actually sorting through a wide variety of information to match a pattern. Over time, the doctor has gained an extensive level of experience that he or she is able to access without awareness.


Emotion is the subjective experience of a person in a certain situation. How a person feels often influences how a person thinks and makes decisions. For example, a person who is angry is often more likely to engage in more risky decision making. In addition, emotions in decision making. are not limited to the emotion experienced while the decision is being made; emotions that a person expects to feel from a particular decision are also involved. For example, if a person believes a car will make him or her feel more powerful, he or she may be more likely to purchase that car.


Intellectual functioning is a highly studied area of psychology. How is intelligence defined? What makes someone more intelligent than someone else? These are multifaceted questions that are difficult to answer; however, theorists have proposed models for some aspects of intelligence.

Theories of Intelligence

There has been much debate concerning the definition of intelligence. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is one of the most all-encompassing definitions, with eight defined types of intelligence: linguistic, logical—mathematical, musical, visual—spatial, bodily—kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist. Gardner argues that Western culture values the first two abilities over the others. After all, linguistic ability and logical—mathematical ability are the two abilities tested on traditional intelligence quotient (IQ) tests. Despite not being the central focus of Western culture, a person's interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence can heavily impact their quality of life. Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to detect and navigate the moods and motivations of others. Gardner believed that people with high interpersonal intelligence would make great sales representatives and therapists. While intrapersonal intelligence centers around being mindful of one's own emotions, strengths, and weaknesses, which can provide clear guidance what role one should take in a group or society.

Key Concept

Gardner’s multiple intelligences include linguistic, logical—mathematical, musical, visual—spatial, bodily—kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

Robert Sternberg pioneered a cognitive perspective that focused on how people use their intelligence, rather than taking the traditional approach of trying to measure an individual's level of intelligence. More specifically, Sternberg’s triarchic theory of human intelligence defines three subtypes: analytical intelligence, which involves the ability to evaluate and reason; creative intelligence, which is the ability to solve problems using novel methods; and practical intelligence, which involves dealing with everyday problems at home or at work.

Successful navigation of our social world also requires us to have a good understanding of both our own emotions and the emotions of those around us. The theory of emotional intelligence addresses our emotional awareness in four components: the ability to express and perceive emotions in ourself and others, the ability to comprehend and analyze our emotions, the ability to regulate our emotions, and awareness of how emotions shape our thoughts and decisions. Empathy is often given as an example of emotional intelligence because empathy requires an individual to understand his or her own emotions well enough to recognize those emotions in other people.

Variations in Intellectual Ability

There are a number of tests and studies that have historically attempted to quantify intelligence. A founding concept behind these tests is Spearman's “g factor,” or general intelligence factor. The theory behind the existence of a g factor is based on the observation that performance on different cognitive tasks is in many cases positively correlated, indicating an underlying factor or variable is playing a role. This underlying variable of intelligence is often measured with standardized tests that generate an intelligence quotient (IQ) for the test taker. IQ tests were largely pioneered by Alfred Binet in the early twentieth century. A professor at Stanford University took Binet’s work and created what is known as the Stanford—Binet IQ test. While later iterations of the test use different methodologies to arrive at a score, it is useful to know the original formula for calculating IQ:


Equation 4.1

Using this equation, a four-year-old with intelligence abilities at the level of the average six-year-old would have an IQ of 150. The distribution of IQ scores from the original study of the Stanford—Binet IQ test is shown in Figure 4.5.

ImageFigure 4.5. Distribution of IQ Scores for Children 5 to 14 Years of AgeMean = 100; SD = 15

Some theorists have argued heavily for intelligence as a hereditary trait, most notably Galton in his novel Hereditary Genius. In reality, variations in intellectual ability can be attributed to many determinants, including genes, environment, and educational experiences. Intellectual ability does appear to run in families, which may be due to both genetics and the environment; some environments are simply more enriching than others. Parental expectations, socioeconomic status, and nutrition have all been shown to correlate with intelligence.

Real World

The Stanford-Binet IQ test, while still popular, has been found to have variable levels of success in assessing intelligence with different ages and cultural groups. In practice, a variety of intelligence assessments can be found in use around the world. Some of these tests still use measures similar to IQ but are specialized for a subpopulation, such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) exam. Other assessments eschew the concept of IQ entirely and instead follow alternative theories, including Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences.

The educational system plays a significant role in the development of intelligence. Children who attend school tend to have greater increases in IQ, and IQ actually decreases slightly during summer vacations. Early intervention in childhood also improves IQ, especially for children in low-enrichment environments. Finally, both intellectually gifted and cognitively disabled children benefit from specialized educational environments. For cognitively disabled students, this is often defined as the least restrictive environment, in which they are encouraged to participate as much as possible in the regular mainstream classroom, with individualized help as needed.

Behavioral Sciences Guided Example With Expert Thinking


Expert Thinking

Many decisions we make use the affect heuristic; that is, we make quick judgments that depend on our emotional state as well as the emotional content of the decision. Specifically, options that provoke positive emotions are more likely to be chosen than those that evoke negative emotions when the choices are quantitatively identical, and even in cases in which the choice associated with negative feelings is quantitatively better. The following three studies were conducted:

Definition of new term: affect heuristic

Study 1: Researchers provided participants with quantitative information about one of two issues: violent crime (steadily declining) and deer overpopulation (steadily increasing). The participants were asked to rate the severity of each problem on a scale from “very bad” to “very good.”

Two problems which differ in severity and emotional content. IV: issue DV: rating

Study 2: Participants were asked to set a price for a listing of retail electronics. One listing included ten unused items and another included 18 items, 14 of which were unused and 4 of which were described as being used and in “poor working order.”

Comparison between two sets of items, varying in content.

IV: list contents (broken items)

DV: price

Study 3: Participants were asked to determine punishments for a number of hypothetical college students who had committed some form of academic dishonesty. The participants were provided a photograph and description for each student. The same student was used, but one group of participants was provided a picture of the student smiling, and the other group was provided a picture of the student with a neutral expression.

Meting out punishment for people, some of whom are smiling in pictures.

IV: photograph

DV: punishment

Adapted from: Wilson, Robyn S.; Arvai, Joseph L. (March 2006). "When Less Is More: How Affect Influences Preferences When Comparing Low and High-risk Options". Journal of Risk Research. 9 (2): 165—178. LaFrance, M.; Hecht, M.A. (March 1995). "Why Smiles Generate Leniency". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 21 (3): 207—214.

If the affect heuristic is shown to be a factor in each of the studies described, what can be predicted about the results of each?

When the MCAT asks us to predict the outcome of an experiment, we want to first consider any content, either from the passage or from our outside knowledge, that might be relevant. Fortunately, this passage provides us with what we need: a definition of the affect heuristic in paragraph one. For each study, then, you’ll want to select the result that prioritizes emotional content. For Study 1, the notion of “violent crime” likely provokes a strong negative feeling, while for most people, the idea of “deer overpopulation” would not be expected to be associated with the same emotional response. It is likely, then, that participants would rate violent crime as a worse problem than deer overpopulation regardless of the actual outcome of analyzing the quantitative impact of each issue. The same heuristic explains why people are more afraid of being attacked by a shark at the beach than of other, more likely causes of death, even though statistically injury or death by shark attack is extremely unlikely.

In Study 2, we would predict that the broken items would cause the second listing to be valued the same as or lower than the first listing, even though the second listing actually contains more items that are unused. This is because the additional broken items would be expected to provoke a negative feeling about the second listing. In fact, further research supports the idea that participants do not add up the value of each item separately, but rather evaluate heuristically what they perceive as an average value of the set of items as a whole.

Finally, in Study 3, we should expect that the smiling students were judged less harshly than those presented with a neutral expression. This is based on the same decision-making heuristic we've been using all along: the smiling student is more likely to be associated with positive emotions, and the decision is likely to be altered based on this emotional input.

To summarize: we should predict based on the affect heuristic that in Study 1 the violent crime will be rated as the more problematic of the two issues, that in Study 2 the batch of items containing broken goods will be rated as less valuable, and that in Study 3 the smiling student will be judged less harshly than the neutral student.

MCAT Concept Check 4.2:

Before you move on, assess your understanding of the material with these questions.

1. A child plays with a tool set, noting that a nail can only be hit with a hammer. When a friend suggests that the handle of a screwdriver can be used to hit a nail, the child passionately objects. This is an example of:

2. A doctor uses a flowchart to treat a patient with sepsis. Given its use in problem solving, a flowchart is an example of a(n):

3. A patient in a mental health facility believes that the sky is pink. Despite several trips outside, the patient still declares the sky is pink. Which psychological principle does this represent?

4. Provide a brief definition of the availability and representativeness heuristics.

o Availability heuristic:

o Representativeness heuristic: