Karl Duncker on Problem Solving

Karl Duncker was a brilliant psychological researcher in the early 20th century, and one of the important figures in Gestalt Theory movement. His seminal work was his book on “productive thought,” Zur Psychologie des produktiven Denkens”, as well as the English-language book *On problem-solving. Neither of which it is possible to get your hands on, unless you know how to search a lot better than me.

According to a little book I’m reading, Information and imagination, Duncker had this to say about “finding a solution to a current problem on the basis of its similarity to a problem or problems encountered in the past”:

It is the most banal and least rational form of finding solutions, practicable in any world whatever, provided this world contains similarities and repetitions at all.


He who merely searches his memory for a solution… may remain just as blind to the inner nature of the problem situation before him as a person who, instead of thinking himself, refers the problem to an intelligent acquaintance or to an encyclopedia.

I find this interesting on several levels.

Firstly, I love to read old books because reading new books that talk about the past is never the same as reading old books where authors speak about the present (their present, that is). When reading new stories about the past, it’s so easy to slip into the habit of judging those ridiculously foresighted people from history, and how could they have ever believed that anyway? Like, duh. Even when they attempt to explain the uncertainty of history, new stories always seem to have a “just-so” quality. Reading old books puts you in touch with the flawed humans of yesteryear (perhaps leading to a better understanding of the flawed humans of today). You can feel their certainty or confusion while also being aware of all the changes and advances in understanding that had since occurred.

Secondly, I’d never heard of Karl Duncker. He didn’t even have an English-language Wikipedia page until I created it (my first! I’ve never found a major topic missing before). And yet he was an important person in the psychological research of the time, a subject of a number of contemporary papers and featured in several contemporary books. I read a lot of books on psychology, and creativity and problem-solving especially. So I find it odd, to say the least.

Thirdly, I think he’s right. Most people would argue that the very essence of problem-solving is pattern detection. Until just now, I would have argued that pattern detection (and synthesis) is why having outside hobbies, or being in more than one field, is so useful for creativity. “Aha! this heating dispersal problem, that’s like the air pockets in butterfly wings!” and that sort of thing.

But Duncker’s got a point:

The pattern-finding mode probably leads to satisficing. Given Problem X, and a pattern-finding mission, you are most likely to halt at the first “good enough” entry you find in your mental filing system. Even if Problems A, B, D, and F are all similar, even covering separate facets of Problem X, most people would be satisfied with Problem A if it comes up first. It’s good enough. It fits the pattern well enough.

“That’s good enough”, though, is not a sentence I like to utter.


  1. baxter says:

    I agree to a point, sometimes you need to discard your previous experiences and try something new in order to find the best solution, but at the same time, is it more important to "just ship"? 🙂

  2. Amy says:

    baxter, guess it depends on whether what you’re going to "just ship!" is just an uninventive rehash of crap that’s already out there 🙂

    On more reflection, I don’t think it could possibly be an absolute one way or another (absolute being: "NEVER USE PATTERNS" or "PATTERNS ARE EVERYTHING".)

    I think the point has to be that you can’t use patterns and be lazy and stop at the first thing that seems to kinda fit.

  3. I can’t help but wonder… is the human mind capable of anything but pattern matching?

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