Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

The Adult Problem Solver as Person Scientist

Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

The Adult Problem Solver as Person Scientist

Article excerpt

In this paper, we take the position that viewing the adult problem solver as a lay or person scientist provides a useful model for understand: ing the types of difficulty adults have in problem solving, and suggests a number of useful interventions for dealing with these difficulties. Problems and interventions are reviewed in three areas: making observations, generating tentative solutions (inferences), and testing the utility of these tentative solutions (hypothesis testing).

Let us then, instead of occupying ourselves with man, the biological organism, or man, the lucky guy, have a look at man the scientist. Might not the individual man, each in his own personal way, assume more of the stature of a scientist, ever seeking to predict and control the course of events with which he is involved? Would not he have his theories, test his hypotheses, and weigh his experimental evidence? (Kelly, 1955, pp. 5-6).

George Kelly's person scientist metaphor has been the stimulus for a considerable body of research in social psychology. Researchers examining attributions (Kelley & Michela, 1980), social inference (Nisbett & Ross, 1981), and hypothesis testing (Snyder, 1981; Strohmer & Newman, 1983) have followed Kelly's suggestion and have examined the observations, inferences, and hypotheses that individuals make and test in attempting to understand and predict their environment It is the premise of this paper that the person scientist metaphor may also be useful in understanding how individuals solve their personal problems.

Kelly's person scientist metaphor provides a model for examining processes that appear to be highly relevant to adult problem solving. Support for this assertion can be found in the counseling literature where a scientific approach to problem solving can be found in a variety of existing techniques and theories. Certain counseling approaches focus on assisting individuals to adopt behavior and thinking consistent with the scientist metaphor (Beck, 1972; Ellis, 1973; Meichenbaum, 1977). Further, in other areas of counseling, theorists specifically call for individuals to adopt a scientific approach to evaluating their options by engaging in unbiased hypothesis testing (e.g., in vocational counseling, see Jordaan, 1963, and Osipow, 1983). From this perspective, virtually any personal impression, idea, decision, or problem solution could be considered a personal hypothesis to be tested. In this paper, we elaborate the application of the person scientist metaphor to personal problem solving, and suggest a number of interventions that logically derive from viewing problem solving from this perspective.


Considering the problem solver as a scientist allows careful examination of three levels of problem-solving activity, (a) making observations, (b) developing inferences and hypotheses, and (c) testing these hypotheses. As person scientists, problem solvers would collect comprehensive data (observations) relating to their problem, incorporate these new data into their own knowledge system to develop a number of tentative solutions (inferences), and carefully test each of these alternatives (hypotheses) against additional data (independent observations). This prescriptive model has long been suggested as the model for careful scientific inquiry and decision making. However, the ability of even the scientist to completely adopt this careful process has often been questioned (Mahoney, 1976; Snyder, 1981). Similarly, the ability of the person scientist to follow this process has been questioned (Nisbett & Ross, 1981; Strohmer, Moilanen, & Barry, 1988). Just as the scientist has been noted to be less than thorough and unbiased in making observations, developing inferences and testing hypotheses, it is our contention that similar problems exist for the adult problem solver. As detailed in the following sections, personal problem solvers can experience difficulty at all three levels of the model. …

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