Unfortunately, I struggle with the problem solving obstacle "mental sets" quite often. Most of the time it is a small struggle, like having trouble coming up with a topic for a paper after a professor has already thrown out some good ideas. Other times, I find myself struggling with mental sets in a difficult situation, like my traumatizing wave runner experience six summers ago.
It was just a normal, summer day that I decided to go out on the lake, to cruise on my wave runner. After a half hour had passed, the wave runner stopped moving and turned off immediately afterwards. This was not a big deal to me, because seaweed always gets stuck in the engine, causing the wave runner to power off. Though, after several attempts reaching by the engine, I still could not find any seaweed. I figured I just couldn't reach far enough, so I called my family to come help me, but they have just too much fun torturing me. As usual, they gave me the "you're a big girl, you can figure it out on your own" speech, and left me out there to suffer. After an hour or so passed, I waved down safety patrol, who told me within five minutes that my wave runner was out of gas. I realized that I was so used to fixing it by unclogging the engine that I didn't think of other solutions (it didn't help that the gas gauge was about the size of a quarter). I have definitely learned from this to think outside of my mental set, so that I do not end up in another embarrassing situation like this one.
Another barrier to problem solving is "functional fixedness". The lesson we did in class on how to survive a plane crash had a good example of this. Most people didn't think the tin of food was high of importance, because we can go without food for over a month. We didn't think of its possible use to signal for help.
Research suggests that to improve problem solving, we need to "alter our focus". When we get too stressed, parts of our brain will shut down and further complicate the problem. Therefore, in times of stress, we should focus on another activity for a little, allowing our minds to relax and eventually be able to generate these ideas needed to solve the problem.
Anyone else have good problem stories they would like to share?
-Psychology: From Inquiry to Understanding