Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

The price of ignoring context in problem-solving

Published on 11 October 2013
Updated on 15 July 2024

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.

– George Orwell, In Front of Your Nose: 1945-1950

A friend of mine, an artist, just created a multipage insert for publication in a review. Their concept envisioned text and drawings facing each other on opposite pages. The text was to appear on even (left-hand) pages and illustrations on odd (right-hand) pages. They delivered the entire work in PDF format, and the copier only had to insert it into the printing file. Murphy’s Law is blind and pitiless; the review carried the insert – beginning with an odd page. The mirror effect was lost.

What happened? While the specifics may be complicated, the core issue is evident to me. The copier was following task-related instructions. The proper sequencing of the piece within the issue was ‘someone else’s job’. In other words, he was following nudges (cut–paste). He had never developed the mental map of the finished product, nor had anyone encouraged him to do so. He lacked a sense of context and was unable to use ‘common sense’. The result was a crying shame.

Popular lore defines ‘common sense’ as ‘prejudices one has acquired before coming of age’. The quip tickles the funny bone, but it is wrong. ‘Common sense’ is the satisfying outcome of solving a specific kind of problem: matching a heuristic (or a known rule) to a new context. It is a (lesser) form of creativity – not spectacular as in the case of an invention. The seed is there, however: it is a ‘joining of what had never been joined before’ (see The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler).

Increasingly, I notice a disconnect between proposed or applied solutions and their context. There is nothing wrong with the proposal itself; it is simply inappropriate to the context. The disconnect is often glaring, yet it is not perceived. It is as if the context did not exist, even when it is right in front of one’s nose. Why is this?

As a group, hunter-gatherers confronted an immensely complicated context with exceedingly few tools. They needed to understand the context fully to have a chance of catching their prey or surviving a famine. They carefully observed the smallest details of the context and constructed complex choice architectures – mental maps – of what to do under various circumstances. Agriculturalists and nomads did the same. They were all consummate ‘problem-solvers’ – their lives depended on it. This is how hunter-gatherers out of Africa became Inuit. Problem-solving is ‘niche construction’ (see my previous post), and is a creative act. Problem-solving should not be confused with solving puzzles. In puzzles, the creator hides the solution, which awaits discovery. After all, there is only one solution to the fiendish Sudoku, and tomorrow’s paper will carry it.


Let’s go back to human history. The division of labour shattered workers’ ability to construct personal mental maps of their workspace. The map-constructing function has been externalised – ‘the boss knows best’. Workers toil as before, but in their work, they no longer ‘solve problems’ (this is not always the case; at Toyota, ‘organisational problem-solving’ is the cusp of the Toyota 4P system; see The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer by Jeffrey K. Liker).

We also build mental maps of personal preferences when we go shopping. However, as consumers, we are no longer in charge. Advertising frames our search. In their stores, retailers create suggestive choice architectures – they guide us subliminally to specific products. Here, too, personal mental maps have been externalised. We let ourselves be nudged rather than using discernment in our purchases.

The state and large service providers are also entering the game. Prof. Sunstein proposes benevolent paternalism in the form of ‘nudges’ to facilitate access to state services (see Simpler: The Future of Government by Cass R. Sunstein). Once again, external choice architectures are replacing individual mental map construction and problem-solving.

From personal to external choice architectures

After production and consumption, social interactions and recreation are increasingly based on external rather than autonomous choice architectures. Facebook criteria for ‘friendship’ replace personal exploration and validation of personal encounters. As children swap video games for living experiences, manual dexterity replaces the ludic development of goal-setting and problem-solving. Androids are the rage: their behaviour may be puzzling at first, but it never requires genuine problem-solving.

The cumulative effect of imposing or offering external choice architectures and downgrading problem-solving to mere puzzle-solving is two-fold. First, there is the immediate fading of the personal ability to construct mental maps, set goals, and solve unexpected problems. Dexterity replaces inventiveness. Seeking pre-programmed cues (solving puzzles) replaces reading, understanding, and manipulating reality. The ‘efficiency’ heuristic replaces personal goal setting. As problem-solving ability fades, so does cultural diversity, curiosity, and creativity.

We bemoan the loss of biodiversity but seem to take the loss of cultural microdiversity in stride. When expert ‘best practice’ replaces personal experience, mental map building and problem-solving become elitist, as we downgrade the ‘wisdom of crowds’. In evolutionary terms, we are narrowing mankind’s overall ability for ‘niche construction’, which is one of the many foundations of evolutionary change (or survival).

Rubiks Cube layout

The need for discernment in building social stability

I see the loss of ‘political sense’ or ‘sense for the social whole’ as a second (and, in my opinion, even more immediate and ominous) issue. Philip Kitcher speaks of humanity’s need for a common ‘ethical project’; anthropologists speak of the ‘self-domestication of the human species’. This goal cannot be achieved simply by triangulation of opposing self-interests – if nothing else because of the constant coalition building, which interferes with individual self-affirmation. In biological and cultural systems, triangulation need not yield social stability. It is a zero-sum game leading to stasis or discontinuities as circumstances change. More deeply, triangulation is static, while problem-solving is an emergent feature. Emergent features arise from cooperation, not conflict. They are based on discernment.

Discernment is understanding the other’s needs, mutuality, and respect. Discernment builds mental maps of the social space. Discernment is the foundation on which social stability and resilience rest.

For all the laudable suggestions Prof. Sunstein presents, one remains uneasy about their collateral effects. Nudging fosters reflexive rather than reflective behaviour. While the government nudges us, we may need to consider proactive ways of fostering the survival (i.e. social) skills of mental map construction, goal setting, and discernment. Put another way: downgrading personal ability to solve problems to mere puzzle-solving is hardly wise. Sudoku may be entertaining, but it does not help us come to grips with life’s unexpected changes.

The post was first published on DeepDip.

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