10 Causal Thinking and Problem Solving

A person is confronted with a problem when he wants something and does not know immediately what series of actions he can perform to get it. --Newell & Simon, 1972, p. 72

Much of our everyday thinking is about cause-and-effect relationships. --Zechmeister & Johnson, 1992, p. 21

The study of problem solving is concerned with how individuals choose actions to achieve desired outcomes, and the study of causal thinking is concerned with how we understand domains in terms of cause-and-effect relations among their elements. The link between these topics is our experience as causal agents, intervening in the world. As we acquire skill in a domain by solving problems, we shift from testing hypotheses about causal relations in order to generate goal structures to developing subroutines organized around the affordances for action of objects in the domain. Problem solving seems to require metacognitive awareness of our roles as causal agents, but this awareness depends on the more fundamental causal knowledge embodied in our procedural skills, which serve as operators in problem solving. Clarifying the ways in which the experience of causal agency is involved in problem solving and causal thinking sets the stage for deeper consideration of complex skills in the following chapters and helps us to understand how the notions of consciousness and causal relations are often entangled.

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