Language and Thinking for AP Psychology (page 2)

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 4, 2011


Thinking affects our language, which in turn affects our thoughts. Linguist Benjamin Whorf proposed a radical hypothesis that our language guides and determines our thinking. He thought that different languages cause people to view the world quite differently. Some words do not translate into other languages. In support of his idea, people who speak more than one language frequently report a different sense of themselves depending on the language they are speaking at the time. His linguistic relativity hypothesis has largely been discredited by empirical research. Rather than language determining what we can perceive, a more likely hypothesis is that the objects and events in our environment determine the words that become a part of our language.

Do you ever think about how you solve problems to attain goals? If so, you engage in metacognition, thinking about how you think. We usually manipulate concepts to solve problems. Concepts enable us to generalize, associate experiences and objects, access memories, and know how to react to specific experiences.

Problem Solving

How do we solve problems? Most problem-solving tasks involve a series of steps. Typically, we first identify that we have a problem. Next we generate problem-solving strategies. These can include using an algorithm or a heuristic, or breaking the problem into smaller problems, developing subgoals that move us toward the solution. An algorithm is a problem-solving strategy that involves a slow, step-by-step procedure that guarantees a solution to many types of problems. Although we will eventually solve the problem correctly using an algorithm, we usually want to solve problems quickly and employ heuristics or mental shortcuts to solve most problems. For example, when we're not sure how to spell the word receive, rather than look up the word in the dictionary, we usually follow the heuristic "I before E, except after C, or when sounded like 'ay,' as in neighbor and weigh." A heuristic suggests but does not guarantee a solution to a problem, and can result in incorrect solutions. Sometimes after trying to find a solution to a problem for a while, the solution suddenly comes to us. Insight is a sudden and often novel realization of the solution to a problem. For example, after trying to unscramble the letters NEBOTYA to form a word, you suddenly realize that the word is bayonet. When we don't have a clue how to solve a problem, we often start with a trial and error approach. This approach involves trying possible solutions and discarding those that do not work. If we need a combination lock for a locker and find an old lock in the drawer, we can try combinations of three numbers that come to mind, but this can be time consuming and may not lead to a solution. Trial and error works best when choices are limited. After we have tried to solve a problem, we need to evaluate the results. How will we decide if we have solved the problem? Using critical thinking, we think reflectively and evaluate the evidence. We reason by transforming information to reach conclusions. Inductive reasoning involves reasoning from the specific to the general, forming concepts about all members of a category based on some members, which is often correct but may be wrong if the members we have chosen do not fairly represent all of the members. Deductive reasoning involves reasoning from the general to the specific. Deductions are logically correct and lead to good answers when the initial rules or assumptions are true. Have we attained our goal? Over time, we may profit from rethinking and redefining problems and solutions.

Obstacles to Problem Solving

Sometimes we are unsuccessful at solving a problem; we cannot attain our goal. What hinders our ability to solve the problem? Obstacles to problem solving and biases in reasoning can keep us from reaching a goal. Fixation is an inability to look at a problem from a fresh perspective, using a prior strategy that may not lead to success. If we've solved 10 problems in a 50-problem set using one rule, we tend to use the same rule to solve the 11th. This tendency to approach the problem in the same way that has been successful previously is a type of fixation called mental set. We may get stuck on the 11th problem because it requires a different rule from the first 10. Another type of fixation that can be an obstacle to problem solving is called functional fixedness, a failure to use an object in an unusual way. For example, if people are carrying plastic tablecloths to a picnic area when it starts to rain, and they get soaked because they aren't wearing raincoats and don't have umbrellas, they are evidencing functional fixedness. They could have used the tablecloths to protect them from the rain. Using decision-making heuristics when we problem solve can result in errors in our judgments. Amos Tversky and Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman studied how and why people make illogical choices. They looked at two types of research. Normative studies ask how we ought to make decisions, and do not actually reflect how people make decisions. Descriptive studies look at how decisions are actually being made. Tversky and Kahneman found we often make erroneous decisions based on intuition. Under conditions of uncertainty, we often use the availability heuristic, estimating the probability of certain events in terms of how readily they come to mind. For example, many people who think nothing of taking a ride in a car are afraid to ride in an airplane because they think it is so dangerous. In fact, riding in an airplane is much safer; we are far less likely to be injured or die as a result of riding in an airplane. Other errors in decision making result from using the representative heuristic, a mental shortcut by which a new situation is judged by how well it matches a stereotypical model or a particular prototype. Is someone who loves to solve math problems more likely to be a mathematics professor or a high school student? Although many people immediately reply that it must be the professor, the correct answer to the problem is the high school student. The total number of high school students is so much greater than the total number of mathematics professors that even if only a small fraction of high school students love to solve math problems, there will be many more of them than mathematics professors. Framing refers to the way a problem is posed. How an issue is framed can significantly affect people's perceptions, decisions, and judgments. We are more likely to buy a product that says it is 90% fat-free, than if it says it contains 10% fat. A suggestion can have a powerful effect on how we respond to a problem. Kahneman and Tversky asked if the length of the Mississippi River is longer or shorter than some suggested length, then asked how long the person thinks the river actually is. When the suggested length was 500 miles, the length guessed was much smaller than when the suggested length was 5,000 miles. The anchoring effect is this tendency to be influenced by a suggested reference point, pulling our response toward that point.


Confirmation bias is a tendency to search for and use information that supports our preconceptions, and ignore information that refutes our ideas. To lessen this tendency, we can consider the opposite. Belief perseverance is a tendency to hold on to a belief after the basis for the belief is discredited. This is different from belief bias, the tendency for our preexisting beliefs to distort logical reasoning, making illogical conclusions seem valid or logical conclusions seem invalid. Hindsight bias is a tendency to falsely report, after the event, that we correctly predicted the outcome of the event. Finally, the overconfidence bias is a tendency to underestimate the extent to which our judgments are erroneous. For example, when reading this section dealing with obstacles to problem solving and errors in decision making, we tend to think that we make these errors less often than most other people.


Creativity is the ability to think about a problem or idea in new and unusual ways, to come up with unconventional solutions. One way to overcome obstacles to problem solving and avoid biases in reasoning is to borrow strategies from creative problem solvers. Convergent thinkers use problem-solving strategies directed toward one correct solution to a problem, whereas divergent thinkers produce many answers to the same question, characteristic of creativity. When they feel stuck on a particular problem, creative thinkers tend to move on to others. Later they come back to those stumpers with a fresh approach. To combat the confirmation and overconfidence biases, when beginning to solve a problem, creative problem solvers brainstorm, generating lots of ideas without evaluating them. After collecting as many ideas as possible, solutions are reviewed and evaluated.

Practice questions for this study guide can be found at:

Cognition Review Questions for AP Psychology

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