Human-Factor Phenomena in Problem Solving

Robert Harris
Version Date: December 31, 2001

Here is a list of several very useful ideas developed over the years to advance our understanding of problem solving and to explain some oddities of human behavior. An acquaintance with these concepts will help you to develop solutions that work better and are accepted more readily. The concepts will also help you understand what is going on when your solutions do not appear to be working as logically as you had hoped.

Principles and Phenomena

The Hawthorne Effect. The attention paid to people when a problem solver offers them a solution or benefit can have a greater positive effect than the solution itself. The psychological happiness produced by the fact that the solver "cares about" the person with a problem can produce increased motivation, production, health, and so on. Therefore, the solution itself may not be the cause (or the entire cause) of the positive results. (Compare the Placebo Effect.)

The Placebo Effect. A placebo is a harmless pill (usually made of sugar or starch). During the testing of new medicines, one group of people is given the medicine under test, while the other group is given a placebo, so that no one knows who is getting the real medicine and who is getting essentially nothing. The first amazing fact in the placebo effect is that sixty percent of those taking the placebos report feeling better. The second amazing fact is that this holds true even when the people are told they are taking a dummy pill.

Occam's Razor. Entities ought not to be multiplied except from necessity. The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions or presenting the lowest level of complexity is most likely to be the correct one. In other words, when two or more explanations satisfy all the requirements for a satisfactory explanation of the same set of phenomena, the simpler explanation is the right one. This "law" was proposed by William of Occam (also spelled Ockham), a fourteenth-century English philosopher. It isn't always correct, but it's a useful idea.

The Peter Principle. In every hierarchy, whether it be government or business, each employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence; every post tends to be filled by an employee incompetent to execute his duties. The idea is that when people perform a job well, they will be promoted out of that job and up to a more complex or difficult one. Eventually, they rise to a job of such complexity or demand that they can no longer do a great, or even competent, job, so they are no longer promoted. They stay at the level where they are no longer competent. This "law" was partly intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but there is a distressing amount of truth to it. (A corollary is that work is accomplished by those who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.

Parkinson's Law. Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If a project is given six months for completion, it will require six months to finish. If the same project is given two years for completion, it will require two years to finish. Two factors are responsible for this phenomenon. First, when a deadline appears to be far off, people work more slowly and put tasks for that project farther down their priority lists. Second, when a large amount of time is available, people will do more inessential things on a project than when less time is available. Most projects are so defined that many non-required tasks could be performed or not performed, depending on the available time.

In any project, activity increases exponentially as the deadline nears, because human beings have a tendency to procrastinate and do most of the work near the deadline. The solution to this problem is to set multiple deadlines for segments or parts of a given project, to assure that the project advances in a sane and timely way. Deadlines are very valuable for producing results. Any project assigned without a deadline is likely never to be completed.

Parkinson's Second Law is that expenditure rises to meet income, and Parkinson's New Law is that the printed word expands to fill the space available for it. The same might be said for television news, management levels, and a whole host of other entities. Named after professor C. Northcote Parkinson of the University of Malaya, 1955.

Murphy's Law. If anything can go wrong, it will. There are hundreds of corollaries to this law, all pointing out that too often we do not "expect the unexpected." Murphy's law is a sobering reminder for us to control our assumptions about how every part of our plan, solution, or idea will work out. Named (possibly but uncertainly) after Ed Murphy, 1949. Corollaries of note include nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and everything takes longer than you expect.

The Pareto Principle. This is also known as the 20/80 rule or the rule of the vital few and trivial many. The principle is that the vital few are responsible for the majority of effect or importance: 20% of the company's salesmen are responsible for 80% of sales; 20% of a company's customers provide 80% of the product volume; only 20% of the problems on a long problem list are responsible for 80% of the difficulty; and so on. The percentages are not intended to be real--in a given case, 13% of the employees may make 87% of the phone calls, etc. The idea is to realize that a small core--of people, problems, ideas, products, events--are responsible for the majority of effect or importance. If you know, for example, that 20% of a grocery store's product items provide 80% of the store's sales or profits, you might want to set up a mini-market that carries just that 20% inventory.

Remember that the Pareto Principle works in reverse, too. If 20% of what you do accounts for 80% of the impact your work will have on civilization, then 80% of what you do accounts for only 20% of the impact. This principle was named after its enunciator, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923).

The Rule of Redundant Systems. Every critical system should have a redundant backup system. When failure of a system would cause serious harm, there should be available some substitute means of performing that system's functions. In airliners, for example, there are sometimes triple redundancy control systems: three separate systems operate the control surfaces of the aircraft. A new high-speed train will have three braking systems: one electric, one hydraulic, and one compressed air. In business, a redundant accounting system might be employed, such as computer and paper, disk mirroring (where data is written to two different storage devices) and so on. In a family situation, redundant communications channels may exist: regular family talks, refrigerator notes, special retreat time, after dinner problem solving. Another area where redundant communication channels is desirable is in business. If the company newsletter fails, there is a staff meeting also. If the memo is forgotten, there is a phone call as well. The Rule of Redundant Systems is not intended to excuse sloppy or defective systems by using the excuse that there is always a backup; rather, the redundant system is there in case the primary excellent system should fail.

The Zeigarnik Effect. This is the desire to complete one task before beginning another. There is a pronounced psychological need in most of us for completion: we do not like to drop one project in midstream and begin another. This effect explains why some people especially resist interruptions, why some people work after hours to finish a task before going home, and why some people have difficulty simultaneously handling multiple, protracted projects. This completion need can be handled by structuring tasks around natural interruptions like breaks, lunch, quitting time, and so forth, and by training yourself to view interruptions or task-switching as acceptable and normal.

The Contrast Principle. In the perception of two items or events, one right after the other, if the second item or event is quite different from the first, we will tend to see the second as much different than it really is. If we talk to a nice person after talking to a nasty person, the nice person will seem even nicer. Similarly, researchers discovered that after looking at photographs of beautiful people, test subjects rated their spouses as less attractive than before looking at the photos. After reviewing a failure or bad suggestion, a success or good suggestion will appear to be much better than it really is.

The Contrast Principle can have a profound effect in problem solving and decision making because the idea or decision that arrives right after a bad idea or decision will tend to be overrated.

Cognitive Dissonance. This is an uncomfortable psychological state or feeling occurring when someone experiences two incompatible beliefs or thoughts. In such a case, there is a powerful tendency to resolve the conflict by rationalizing or altering one's view of one or both of the beliefs. A striking example would be the shock you would feel upon learning that someone you love dearly has just murdered someone. The dissonance set up by such a situation would have a tendency to be resolved: The murdered person must have deserved it; or I'm sure it was an accident; or I never really loved my beloved anyway. Note that the tendency is to change things so that the beliefs are compatible.

Hearing about crime often causes people dissonance--between their belief in justice and morality and the events that occur. When a woman is raped, dissonance is set up because such things should not happen. Therefore, the woman must have done something to "deserve" it: she should not have dressed that way; what was she doing in that part of town at that time of night?; why did she have her window open, anyway? and so on.

Note this kind of thinking: my idea was rejected; but it was a good idea; good ideas are not rejected by honest people; therefore the boss is crooked, paid off, or playing favorites, etc.

The Principle of Perceptual Consistency. We tend to pigeon-hole people, things, and circumstances into simple, generalized entities. Once we have done that, we tend to perceive new information about those things as supporting our generalizations. We also tend to generalize from our impressions about one trait or circumstance of a person or situation. For example, good looking people are usually judged by others to be more intelligent and capable than they really are while unattractive people are judged to be less intelligent and capable than they really are, simply because of this generalized transference. And once a person has been tagged as intelligent or unintelligent, subsequent events surrounding that person will tend to be perceived as reinforcing that generalization. If, for example, Person A has been judged to be an excellent problem solver, idea X will be judged excellent if he enunciates it. But if Person B, who has been judged a poor problem solver, enunciates idea X, the idea will be judged as poor.

If several people are watching a game on television and one person says, "Look what a klutz Williams is," everyone will begin to interpret many of Williams' actions as klutzy. If, on the other hand, the person had said, "Look how efficiently Williams moves," everyone watching will begin to interpret many of Williams' moves in a positive way.

The net effect of this principle is that much time and evidence will be required for us to change our view of a person or situation. Before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, much evidence was discovered that a surprise attack was imminent but top military leaders refused to credit it because they already "knew" that no such attack was coming.

This perceptual consistency principle explains why people wearing ties appear to be more important and intelligent than those without them. Similarly, women wearing glasses are viewed as being more intelligent than those wearing (invisible) contact lenses.

The Turnpike Effect. The availability and unforeseen utility of a resource leads to greater use than was predicted. In the past, builders of highways projected use of the new roads based on historical flow over existing roads. But every highway that was built was very soon used much more than predicted. When people discovered the existence of the highway and the ease of travel that was now possible, they used it much more than they did the old roads to the same places. Similarly, when any new resource is made available, whether computer terminals in the library, free meals on skid row, a new airport, piles of scratch paper near a phone, a company ombudsman or other resource person, a telephone answering machine, all of these resources will most likely be used more than would be predicted by researchers doing surveys about the need or desirability for such a resource.

Thus, the statement, "We don't get many calls for such an item [or service]," doesn't necessarily mean that the item or service wouldn't be used if it were available. We see something and we want it or use it. You may want to take the turnpike effect into account when you plan for the usage of some service or resource you are developing. One rule of thumb is to add at least 15% to your predicted demand.

The turnpike effect explains why there is such an aggressive struggle to get consumer goods on store shelves. Manufacturers are willing to pay individual stores thousands of dollars for shelf space to get their products in front of the consumers' noses. Similarly, the books that are in the stores get read more than the ones that have to be special ordered. Perhaps a brief way to express the turnpike effect is to say that availability shapes demand.

Components of Good Directions

To prevent confusion, be sure your directions are clear and accurate. Here are three components for good directions (adapted from Richard Saul Wurman in Information Anxiety):

1. Time. How long will each step take? Examples: "This part of disk preparation requires about ten minutes." "The leg from Minsk to Omsk requires three hours."

2. Anticipation. What should be happening? What should be expected as the process or journey proceeds? Describe the things for the user to look forward to. Examples: "When connection is made, you will hear a beep." "When the pulley is adjusted properly, the current draw will be between 7 and 9 amps." "When you mix the two ingredients together, you will notice a change in color from white to pink." "Just before you reach the turnoff, you will see a large, brown factory with green window awnings."

3. Failure. What event will warn of failure? What remedy should be applied in such a case? Examples: "If the wiper motor does not run after installation, there is probably a bad ground. Try tightening all three mounting bolts or attaching a jumper from the motor to the frame." "If the page preview reveals too large a space between columns, check your right margin setting in the document, to make sure it is the width of just one column." "If you see a lighthouse on the left, you've taken the wrong road and should return to the intersection where you saw the factory."

Other Tools for Creative Thinking and Problem Solving

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com