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MCAT Content / Cognition / Problem Solving And Decision Making

Problem-solving and decision making

Topic: Cognition

Problem-solving refers to a way of reaching a goal from a present condition, where the present condition is either not directly moving toward the goal, is far from it, or needs more complex logic in order to find steps toward the goal.

Types of problem-solving

There are considered to be two major domains in problem-solving: mathematical problem solving, which involves problems capable of being represented by symbols, and personal problem solving, where some difficulty or barrier is encountered.

Within these domains of problem-solving, there are a number of approaches that can be taken. A person may decide to take a trial and error approach and try different approaches to see which one works the best. Or they may decide to use an algorithm approach following a set of rules and steps to find the correct approach. A heuristic approach can also be taken where a person uses previous experiences to inform their approach to problem-solving.

MCAT Problem-solving and decision making


Barriers to effective problem solving 

Barriers exist to problem-solving they can be categorized by their features and tasks required to overcome them.

The mental set is a barrier to problem-solving. The mental set is an unconscious tendency to approach a problem in a particular way. Our mental sets are shaped by our past experiences and habits. Functional fixedness is a special type of mindset that occurs when the intended purpose of an object hinders a person’s ability to see its potential other uses.

The unnecessary constraint is a barrier that shows up in problem-solving that causes people to unconsciously place boundaries on the task at hand.

Irrelevant information is a barrier when information is presented as part of a problem, but which is unrelated or unimportant to that problem and will not help solve it. Typically, it detracts from the problem-solving process, as it may seem pertinent and distract people from finding the most efficient solution.

Confirmation bias is a barrier to problem-solving. This exists when a person has a tendency to look for information that supports their idea or approach instead of looking at new information that may contradict their approach or ideas.

Strategies for problem-solving

There are many strategies that can make solving a problem easier and more efficient. Two of them, algorithms and heuristics, are of particularly great psychological importance.

A heuristic is a rule of thumb, a strategy, or a mental shortcut that generally works for solving a problem (particularly decision-making problems). It is a practical method, one that is not a hundred per cent guaranteed to be optimal or even successful, but is sufficient for the immediate goal. Working backwards is a useful heuristic in which you begin solving the problem by focusing on the end result. Another useful heuristic is the practice of accomplishing a large goal or task by breaking it into a series of smaller steps.

An algorithm is a series of sets of steps for solving a problem. Unlike a heuristic, you are guaranteed to get the correct solution to the problem; however, an algorithm may not necessarily be the most efficient way of solving the problem. Additionally, you need to know the algorithm (i.e., the complete set of steps), which is not usually realistic for the problems of daily life.


Biases can affect problem-solving ability by directing a problem-solving heuristic or algorithm based on prior experience.

In order to make good decisions, we use our knowledge and our reasoning. Often, this knowledge and reasoning is sound and solid. Sometimes, however, we are swayed by biases or by others manipulating a situation. There are several forms of bias which can inform our decision-making process and problem-solving ability:

Anchoring bias -Tendency to focus on one particular piece of information when making decisions or problem-solving

Confirmation bias – Focuses on information that confirms existing beliefs

MCAT Problem-solving and decision making

Hindsight bias – Belief that the event just experienced was predictable

Representative bias – Unintentional stereotyping of someone or something

Availability bias – Decision is based upon either an available precedent or an example that may be faulty

Belief bias – casting judgment on issues using what someone believes about their conclusion. A good example is belief perseverance which is the tendency to hold on to pre-existing beliefs, despite being presented with evidence that is contradictory.

MCAT Problem-solving and decision making

Practice Questions


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MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)

Sample Test P/S Section Passage 3 Question 12

Practice Exam 2 P/S Section Passage 8 Question 40

Practice Exam 2 P/S Section Passage 8 Question 42

Practice Exam 4 P/S Section Question 12


Key Points

• Problem-solving can be considered when a person is presented with two types of problems – mathematical or personal

• Barriers exist to problem-solving maybe because of the mental set of the person, constraints on their thoughts or being presented with irrelevant information

• People can typically employ a number of strategies in problem-solving such as heuristics, where a general problem-solving method is applied to a problem or an algorithm can be applied which is a set of steps to solving a problem without a guaranteed result

• Biases can affect problem-solving ability by directing a problem-solving heuristic or algorithm based on prior experience.

Key Terms

Mental set: an unconscious tendency to approach a problem in a particular way

Problem: the difference between the current situation and a goal

Algorithm: problem-solving strategy characterized by a specific set of instructions

Anchoring bias: faulty heuristic in which you fixate on a single aspect of a problem to find a solution

Availability bias: faulty heuristic in which you make a decision based on information readily available to you

Confirmation bias: faulty heuristic in which you focus on information that confirms your beliefs

Functional fixedness: inability to see an object as useful for any other use other than the one for which it was intended

Heuristic: mental shortcut that saves time when solving a problem

Hindsight bias: belief that the event just experienced was predictable, even though it really wasn’t

Problem-solving strategy: a method for solving problems

Representative bias: faulty heuristic in which you stereotype someone or something without a valid basis for your judgment

Working backwards: heuristic in which you begin to solve a problem by focusing on the end result

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