When we approach a new situation, our knowledge based on prior experiences will influence our ability to define and represent a problem correctly. In fact, we may fail to notice the existence of a problem if it runs counter to our strongly held expectations.

To the extent that an individual has misleading expectations or schemas about a problem, due either to crystallized expertise or to the effects of misleading context, that person may have difficulty thinking flexibly about how to approach the dilemma. Recall the lemonade and iced tea example. Our assumption that lemonade and iced tea are beverages in liquid form impedes our ability to think of them in any other form. The processes involved in problem recognition, definition, and representation are quite varied.

To notice a problem, a person must attend broadly to all pieces of relevant information in a situation. Additional knowledge from past experience with similar problems must also be accessed. However, the likelihood that an individual will spontaneously notice analogies between problems in disparate domains is rather small (Gick & Holyoak, 1980). Individual differences in cognitive abilities and personality may explain why some people are better at solving ill-defined problems than are others

The ability to think divergently and flexibly is valuable in the process of problem formulation, as is an open and intrinsically motivated disposition. Perhaps the most critical variable in determining whether a person discovers or creates a novel problem is that individual’s motivation to find it and work on developing an appropriate definition and representation of the issue. This disposition characterized by openness and curiosity may be regarded as a trait version of a mental set, a constant metacognitive attentiveness to the environment and the process of problem solving.

Individuals with this disposition are always thinking of different ways to regard the information in their environment and the information they possess in long-term memory. When they are working on a problem, they naturally attempt to redefine and re-represent the problem, thus increasing their chances of finding a definition and representation that will yield a creative solution. 

Finally, the social context may also facilitate the likelihood of noticing problems and thinking divergently about their solutions. If an environment does not encourage potentially creative individuals to seek and explore, they will not discover gaps in their understanding, and they will not learn to play with ideas nor practice taking different perspectives on problems with which they are confronted

Excerpt from Davidson, J., & Sternberg, R. (Eds.). (2003). The Psychology of Problem Solving. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511615771

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