An ecological perspective on insight problem solving

Sune Vork Steffensen, Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau

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    Our starting point in this chapter is the ecological tradition’s aspiration “to understand how organisms make their way in the world, not how a world is made inside of organisms” (Reed, 1996, p. 11). For an organism, “making one’s way in the world” is a continuous process: It is a behavioral and metabolic continuity whereby the organism-environment relation is regulated in a way that leaves traces in both the organism and the environment. The prerequisite for describing the organism-environment relation as being regulated is that the relation is sufficiently flexible: A living system’s flexible, adaptive behavior is enabled by cognition. Accordingly, a cognitive trajectory intertwines with the organism’s behavioral and metabolic processes. We define this cognitive trajectory as an emergent pattern in a dynamic organism-environment relation, managed by the organism through continuous action-perception cycles. On this view, cognition does not play out in a separate, mediational (mental) realm nor does it constitute a causal power that controls the organism’s metabolic and behavioral states. The chapter opens with a critical review of the mentalist view on cognition and problem solving, partly through a critique of the classic methods of decomposing problem solving and partly through a discussion of Ohlsson’s framework. After that, we present the ecological framework and suggests that from that perspective, problem-solving psychology is the “psychology of the suspended next.” We clarify this view through a presentation of how organism-environment interactivity gives rise to distinct cognitive trajectories in two case examples: one observed under laboratory conditions and one in the “wild.” Our main proposal is that, to understand problem solving, we need to take as a starting point how agents probe their cognitive ecology when their automatized routines fail, and they find themselves confronted with an impasse. Insights, on this view, are not achieved, but enacted.

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationInsight : On the Origins of New Ideas
    EditorsFrederic Vallee-Tourangeau
    Publication date2018
    ISBN (Print)9781138288065
    ISBN (Electronic)9781351975100
    Publication statusPublished - 2018
    SeriesCurrent Issues in Thinking and Reasoning


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