Problem-Solving with Tools Can Increase Creativity, Productivity

The idea that thinking is done only in the head is a convenient illusion that doesn’t reflect how problems are solved in reality, according to two cognitive psychology experts from Kingston University London. In a new study, the researchers demonstrate how our decision making is heavily influenced by our environment — and that using tools or objects when problem solving can spark new ways of finding solutions and increase productivity.

“When you write or draw, the action itself makes you think differently,” said Professor Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau, a professor of organizational behavior. “In cognitive psychology you are trained to see the mind as a computer, but we’ve found that people don’t think that way in the real world. If you give them something to interact with they think in a different way.”

For the study, the researchers invited 50 participants to attempt to solve the following problem: Put 17 animals in four pens in such a way that there are an odd number of animals in each one.

The participants were split into two groups — the first group was able to build physical models with their hands, while the second group was given an electronic tablet and stylus to sketch out an answer. The researchers found that the model-building participants were much more likely to find the solution — which required designing an overlapping pen configuration — than those with the tablet.

“We showed with this study that for some types of problem — regardless of an individual’s cognitive ability — being able to physical[ly] interact with tools gave people a fighting chance of solving it,” said Professor Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau, a professor of psychology.

“By contrast, a pen and paper-type method almost guaranteed they wouldn’t be able to. It demonstrates how interacting with the world can really benefit people’s performance.”

The research team has also been working on a new study exploring how math anxiety — a debilitating emotional reaction to mental arithmetic that can cause people to avoid even simple tasks like splitting a restaurant bill — could potentially be managed through interactivity.

The study, which was published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, involved asking people to speak a word repeatedly while doing long sums at the same time. It found that the mathematical ability of those asked to do the sums in their heads was more affected than those given number tokens that they could move with their hands.

However, the really interesting finding was how a person’s math anxiety affected the results.

“We found that for those adding the sums in their head, their maths anxiety score predicted the magnitude of errors made while speaking a word repeatedly,”  said Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau. “If they’re really maths anxious, the impact will be huge. But in a high interactivity context — when they were moving number tokens — they behaved as if they were not anxious about numbers.”

He went on to explain that some people with math anxiety cope by completely avoiding math altogether, which only worsens the problem. “That’s what makes these findings really interesting,” he said. “Trying to understand why the fear factor is eliminated or controlled to a manageable level when using your hands rather than just your head is the question we’re trying to get to the bottom of now.”

As well as potentially being of benefit when it comes to teaching, re-examining old ideas of how we think could have numerous practical applications.

“If you look at recruitment, for example, a lot of assessment centers use classical intelligence tests when interviewing candidates,” added Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau. “But depending on the type of work they are recruiting for, they may be missing out on the best people for the job.”

“In business and management, all the models are using the old metaphor of decision making as information processing, which is something I think we need to overcome. We need to redefine how thinking occurs.”

The study is published in the journal Acta Psychologica.

Source: Kingston University London