thoughts process

Thinking and psychological thought process

1.0. Objectives

  1. To have an idea of the thought process.
  2. To know about concepts and concept formation.
  3. To understand problem solving and have an insight into decision-making.

IMP Points

  • Thinking process
  • Concepts and concept formation
  • Problem solving
  • Decision-making.
  • Summary
  • Technical Terms
  • Model Questions
  • Reference Books


1.1. Thinking Process

The symbols that we use in thinking are often words and language, and therefore thinking and language are closely related. A language makes available hundreds of thousands of potential symbols and gives us rules for using them. To a large degree, the availability of language symbols is what makes human thinking so much more sophisticated than the thinking of other animals. Although language is a powerful tool in human thought, as when we talk to ourselves internally, images are another important type of symbol used in thinking.

People vary remarkably in how much they use images in their thinking. A few report that they almost never use mental pictures, so they must be doing their thinking with words, or verbally; others report that most of their thinking is done in image form. When we use images to think, they are not usually complete pictures in the head. They are usually incomplete. In general, the images are abstractions of certain features from previous experience. The incomplete abstract images most of us use in thinking seem to be constructed from elements stored in long-term memory. The constructive process involved in imagery has been studied by means of experiments in which people were asked to form images of various sizes. For example, an elephant might be imaged as the size of a mouse, or a mouse imaged as the size of an elephant. Variations of this sort in the sizes of the images indicate that images are constructions.

For many people, much of the time, a good deal of thinking involves the use of word symbols and the rules of grammar to join the words into phrases and sentences. The words, their meanings, and the rules for joining them together are stored in our semantic long-term memories. When we think with language, we draw on this store of information to use language as a tool of thought.

Some theorists claim that language can actually determine the thoughts we are capable of having. But this linguistic relativity hypothesis has been under increasing attack in recent years. Because so much thinking involves language, the idea arose in psychology that thinking was actually a kind of inner speech. People make small movements of the vocal apparatus when they think. In an experiment, the subject was completely paralyzed by means of a drug. The paralyzing drug, however, did not affect the way his brain worked. While under the influence of the drug, the subject was given certain verbal problems to solve; he could not answer, because the muscles necessary for speaking were paralyzed. There is no way to be certain that he was thinking while under the influence of the drug, but all indications are that he was because after the paralysis was removed by a counteracting drug, he clearly remembered what had taken place while he was drugged and promptly gave the answers to the problems.

Deaf children with little verbal language ability score in the normal range on standardized tests of cognitive performance. Such findings have been interpreted as indicating that language plays little or no role in the thinking or cognitive development of the deaf. But many of the deaf are taught sign language, and, even if they are not explicitly taught such a language, it has been found that deaf children will develop their own. This may indicate that there is an innate human program for language, be it verbal or gestural.

1.2. Concepts

Concept refers to a general idea or unit of knowledge, which is the result of many experiences. Concepts are based on generalizations, and once developed, they play an important role in further thinking.

Concepts such as life and time are usually acquired slowly, over a period of years. Simpler concepts are acquired rapidly by adults, sometimes in the space of just a few moments. The concept exists out there and is acquired through an accumulation of experiences. The concept is an individual creation. Out of a huge variety of possibilities the individual eventually develops his own concepts, which serve his particular purposes. The essential processes are abstracting and generalizing.

Abstracting is observing the essential feature of an object or event. The individuals who first formulated the concept of tree, regardless of how much they differ, still have some things in common. Likewise, the child in acquiring the concept of tree must make similar observations. The child’s first experience with a tree may be hearing the word tree associated with a magnolia, but later he may hear the same word attached to pine tree, an object of quite different appearance. Later still, he hears an oak called a tree.

After a series of such experiences with a variety of trees, the child may see a willow, which has never been called a tree in his presence. If he designates this object as a tree, the child must have observed something of what the willow has in common with other trees. The child also must have put aspects of previous experiences together with the present experience and reached the conclusion that this object, being like the others in certain respects, is in the same category. Deriving a principle from varied experiences in this way is generalizing, but an adequate generalization, or concept, cannot be achieved without previous abstracting. Both processes are involved, though often in a cyclical fashion, where they cannot be separated from one another.

William James described the overall principle in concept formation as dissociation by varying concomitants. He stresses the need for repeated instances of observation. If an adequate concept is to be developed, what is associated now with one thing and now with another tends to become dissociated with either and to grow into an object of abstract contemplation. If the concept of triangularity is to develop, triangularity must appear in different specific situations and gradually by successive instances of abstracting and generalizing, the full concept emerges. The child develops an adequate concept of dog when the word dog is associated with white creatures, black ones, fury ones, large ones and small ones, all of which are dogs.

Laboratory studies have suggested several different strategies in concept formation, the most common of which are the holistic and partist approaches. In the holistic approach, the subject is not selective at the outset of the experiment; he considers all characteristics of the stimulus as part of the concept to be discovered. If he is shown a card containing three green circles and a triple border and told that this card exemplifies the concept in question, he assumes that all these aspects are involved. If he is shown a second card exemplifying the concept containing three red circles and a triple border, he discards the colour dimension and assumes that all three of the remaining criteria – number of figures, shapes of figures and size of the border still apply. He proceeds in a slow but systematic fashion.

In the partist approach, the subject focuses upon only one or a few aspects at the outset, a procedure, which is inefficient whenever the concept is composed of several characteristics. The problem with this approach is that incorrect hypotheses are discarded; yet they may include some of the dimensions of the concept. The subject may state that the concept is circles and be told that he is incorrect – because the concept is three circles in a triple border. On the other hand, if the concept is a simple one, such as circles only, he has obtained it more quickly than someone using the holistic method.

Laboratory studies as a rule involve a clearly definable, correct concept, identified by a limited number of dimensions, which is obtained by the subject in a relatively short period. Such tasks are often referred to as concept attainment, in contrast to concept formation in everyday life. In our day-to-day experiences, concepts may have many dimensions; sometimes there is no one concept, which is necessarily correct; and often a considerable length of time is required before the concept is formed. In a sense, concepts are condensations of past experience. They bring together in a single idea what one has learned about the properties of many different things.

Concepts are essential tools in thinking. They help us organize and unify our ideas of things by classifying them. First, a concept brings together in thought all the individuals under a class. Lower concepts are bought under higher concept, and these again under still higher concepts. Conception is the basis of classification. It systematizes our knowledge. Secondly, concepts economize thought. They relieve the mind from the burden of remembering the bewildering variety of objects of experience by substituting a moderate and manageable number of concepts for them. Thirdly, concepts extend thought over the past, present and future. They are the thoughts of the common elements of all the individuals belonging to different classes in all times and places. Lastly, concepts are indispensable for reasoning. Reasoning consists in passing from given judgments to a new judgment implied in them. And judgments consist of concepts and ideas. Moreover, no reasoning is possible without a concept, which serves as the middle term.

1.3. Problem Solving

Some problem solving is done through insight. Insight refers to the sudden awareness of a novel solution to a novel problem. One of the puzzling aspects of insight is its unpredictability. People cannot tell when – or even if – an insight might occur. Insight seems to involve at least three separate problem-solving skills. The skill of selective encoding is used when we try to solve a new problem and when we are often overwhelmed by large amounts of useless information. An insight arises when we determine which information is relevant for further consideration. The skill of selective combination is used when we have a problem to solve, and we often have all the pieces of the solution, but we do not know how to put them together. An insight arises when we discover a novel way of combining the elements of the solution. The skill of selective comparison is used when we solve a problem and we often use a model solution we encountered in the past. Insight occurs when we discover that a more novel comparison leads to unforeseen consequences.

In creative problem solving, first a goal is set. Then potentially relevant information is gathered, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident. This preparation done, a period of apparent inactivity – incubation – can set in. Incubation may involve unconscious mental activity, or it may simply be a period of waiting for some important missing link to fall into place. The moment of insight often involves familiar elements coming together in new ways. The final step, verification, tells whether a new combination is, in fact, useful.

Although cognitive approaches to problem solving suggest that thinking proceeds along fairly rational, logical lines as a person confronts a problem and considers various solutions, a number of factors act to hinder the development of creative, appropriate and accurate solutions.

Functional fixedness is the tendency to think of an object only in terms of its typical uses. For instance, functional fixedness probably leads you to think of the book you are holding in your hands as something to read, as opposed to its value as a doorstop or as kindling for a fire. Functional fixedness is an example of a broader phenomenon known as mental set, the tendency for old patterns of problem solving to persist. Mental set can also affect perceptions. It can prevent you from seeing your way beyond the apparent constraints of a problem.

In confirmation bias, the initial hypotheses are favoured and contradictory information supporting alternative hypotheses or solutions is ignored. Even when we find evidence that contradicts a solution we have chosen, we are apt to stick with our original hypothesis. There are several reasons for the confirmation bias. One is that it takes a cognitive effort to rethink a problem that appears to be solved already, so we are apt to stick with our first solution. Another is that evidence contradicting an initial solution may present something of a threat to our self-esteem, leading us to hold to the solutions that we have come up with first.

1.4. Decision Making

Once you diagnose a problem or analyze a situation, the next step is usually to do something about it. This step requires deciding on a course of action. However, decisions are often far more difficult. Even the right decision sometimes leads to the wrong outcome, because the world is uncertain; chance is fickle. Decisions made when the outcome is uncertain are called risky decisions or decisions under uncertainty. Chance aside, psychologists have discovered many other reasons why human decisions may lead to unsatisfactory outcomes.

Suppose the choice is between taking (1) a course that is taught by an excellent professor at a convenient time but does not count toward your major, or (2) a course that is required for your major but is taught by a mediocre instructor at an inconvenient time. Each option has both positive and negative features, or attributes, a fact that greatly complicates decision making. This is an example of multiattribute decision making.

Multiattribute decisions can be difficult in part because the limited storage capacity of short-term memory does not permit people to easily keep in mind, combine, and compare all of the attributes of all of the options. Instead people tend to focus on the one attribute that is most important to them. If learning from stimulating lectures is most important to you, then you might choose the course with the better professor, without giving much consideration to curriculum requirements. Often multiattribute decisions are also complicated by difficulties in weighing the options and estimating the probabilities of the outcomes.

In most important decisions, the attributes of the options cannot be measured in objective terms. Psychologists use the term utility to describe the subjective, personal value of each attribute. Multiattribute decisions are difficult enough when you know a lot about the consequences associated with each option, but often decisions must be made in the face of uncertainty. Uncertainty adds new difficulties to the decision making process: to make a good decision, you should take into account not only the attributes of the options but also the probabilities and risks of their possible outcomes.

It is assumed that the best decision is the one that maximizes expected value, or the total amount of benefit you could expect to receive if the decision were repeated on several occasions. In fact, people do not always behave so as to maximize their expected values. For one thing, positive utilities are not mirror images of negative utilities. Instead, people feel worse about losing a certain amount than they feel good about gaining the same amount. Further, large losses are seen as disproportionately more serious than small losses. It also appears that the utility of a specific gain depends not on the absolute increase in value but on what the starting point was.

Biases in the perception of probability are also a source of less than optimal decisions. Two such biases are especially interesting. The first is the tendency to overestimate rare probabilities – and underestimate very frequent ones. This bias not only helps explain why people buy insurance but also why they gamble and enter lotteries, even though the odds are against them and the decision to do so has a negative expected value. Bias relating to probability is called the gambler’s fallacy. People believe that events in a random process will correct themselves. This belief is false. Yet another factor underlying flaws in human decision-making is the tendency for people to be unrealistically confident in the accuracy of their predictions.

1.5. Summary

Thinking and language are closely related and people vary remarkably in how much they use images in their thinking.

Concept refers to a general idea or unit of knowledge, which is the result of many experiences.

Concepts are based on generalizations, and play an important role in further thinking. Some problem solving is done through insight.

Creative thinking is another method of problem solving.

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