Impasse-driven problem solving: the multidimensional nature of feeling stuck

Ross, Wendy and Arfini, Selene (2024) Impasse-driven problem solving: the multidimensional nature of feeling stuck. Cognition, 246 (May24). p. 105746. ISSN 0010-0277


This study reports findings across four preregistered experiments (total N = 856) that establish the multidimensional nature of impasse and resolve two paradoxes implicit in the problem-solving literature: how a state of impasse can be at once necessary to solve a problem with insight and yet also have appear to have a catastrophic effect on solution rates, and why individuals such as problem-solving and gaming enthusiasts seem to seek out this apparently aversive state. We introduce a new way of measuring impasse based on qualitative reports and subsequently confirmed through quantitative analysis that exploits two aspects of impasse: its dynamic and unstable nature (it can be resolved or unresolved) and its multidimensionality in terms of feelings of cognitive speediness, motivation, and affect. The feeling of being stuck varies resolved and unresolved impasse in terms of feelings of speediness and positive affect, but not motivation, which remains constant. We demonstrate that the feeling of insight can be reliably elicited by experiencing and resolving impasse but also in the absence of impasse, which suggests that there is more than one path to an insight experience. This adds depths to current proposals of the cognitive mechanisms underlying both insight problem-solving and impasse. Our findings are robust across a range of problem types. The novel conception of impasse in this paper as dynamic and multidimensional has implications for theories of insight problem solving, and also wider implications for understanding how impasse can be resolved across different domains such as education and design.

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