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Preface Frensch & Funke (1995)

Complex Problem Solving: The European Perspective

Edited by Peter Frensch and Joachim Funke

Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995

ISBN: 0-8058-1783-2 (softcover, $34.50), 0-8058-1336-5 (hardcover, $59.95)


We dedicate this book to Donald E. Broadbent who suddenly and unexpectedly passed away during the final stages of the project. He was both an initiator and a very active contributor to the complex problem solving scenes in Europe and North America, and was, perhaps more than anybody else, familar with, and comfortably working within, the two approaches. Donald Broadbent will be deeply missed.


Imagine your typical 5-year old sliding all over the living-room floor while feverishly using her Lego building blocks to construct the biggest mansion on earth. And imagine the engineer at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station thinking of all possible ways to stop the biggest atomic disaster that anyone has ever seen from happening. Both the 5-year old and the seasoned engineer engage in complex problem solving. This entire volume deals with complex problem solving (CPS). At an abstract level, we might define complex problem solving as thinking that

... occurs to overcome barriers between a given state and a desired goal state by means of behavioral and/or cognitive, multi-step activities. [In CPS,] the given state, goal state, and barriers ... are complex, change dynamically during problem solving, and are intransparent, [and] the exact properties of the given state, goal state, and barriers are unknown to the solver. ... CPS implies the efficient interaction between a solver and the situational requirements of the task, and involves a solver's cognitive, emotional, personal, and social abilities and knowledge. (Frensch & Funke, this volume)

Clearly, complex problem solving, defined in this way, is ubiquitous, even though the results of such problem solving are, gratefully, not always as important as they were in the Chernobyl example mentioned above. However, not every task that we are facing gives rise to complex problem solving. Rather, at least according to our definition, a problem must be (a) novel, (b) complex, (c) dynamically changing over time, and (d) intransparent before we can legitimately call our dealings with the problem "complex problem solving." CPS, thus, is not a straightforward extension of "simple" problem solving (SPS), that is, problem solving involving relatively simple problems such as choosing the "right" clothes for a festive occasion. Instead, CPS and SPS are qualitatively different. For example, SPS frequently serves to overcome a single barrier; CPS, in contrast, deals with a large number of barriers that co-exist simultaneously. Because there are multiple barriers, a single cognitive or behavioral activity may not be sufficient to reach the goal state. Rather, a well-planned, prioritized, set of cognitions and actions may need to be performed in order to get closer to the desired goal state.

Complex problem solving, then, is a topic that deserves our all attention, and certainly the attention of experimental psychologists--if only for the potentially disastrous consequences of problem solving gone awry. Why, however, do we need an entire book dedicated to European research on CPS? The answer is two-fold: First, we need such a book because much of the existing, original European research has to date been published exclusively in non-English journals or books and, thus, has not been accessible to North American scholars--with the exception of those of us lucky enough to be familiar with several languages. And second, we need such a book because European research on CPS has a flavor that is quite different from that of most of the research conducted in North America. That is to say that both the theoretical and empirical approaches to studying CPS have been quite different in Europe and North America during roughly the past two decades.

A little bit of history: Both the North American and the European approach to studying CPS originated from the realization (which occurred sometime during the mid seventies) that empirical findings and theoretical concepts that had been derived from simple laboratory problems are not generalizable to more complex, real-life problems. Even worse, it appears that the processes underlying CPS in different domains are different from each other. These realizations have led to rather different responses in North America and Europe. In North America, initiated by the work of Herbert Simon on learning by doing in semantically rich domains (e.g., Anzai & Simon, 1979; Bhaskar & Simon, 1977), researchers began to investigate problem solving in separate natural knowledge domains (e.g., physics, writing, chess playing). Frequently, these researchers focus on trying to understand the development of problem solving within a certain domain, that is on the development of expertise (e.g., Anderson, Boyle, & Reiser, 1985; Chase & Simon, 1973; Chi, Feltovich, & Glaser, 1981). Domains that have attracted rather extensive attention in North America include such diverse fields as reading, writing, calculation, political decision making, managerial problem solving, lawyers' reasoning, mechanical problem solving, problem solving in electronics, computer skills, and game playing.

In Europe, two main approaches have surfaced during the past two decades, one initiated by Donald Broadbent (1977; see Berry & Broadbent, this volume) in Great Britain and the other one by Dietrich Dörner (1975; see Dörner & Wearing, this volume) in Germany. The two approaches have in common an emphasis on relatively complex, semantically rich, computerized laboratory tasks that are constructed to be similar to real-life problems. The approaches differ somewhat in their theoretical goals and methodology, however. The tradition initiated by Broadbent emphasizes the distinction between cognitive problem solving processes that operate under awareness versus outside of awareness, and typically employs mathematically well-defined computerized systems. The tradition initiated by Dörner, on the other hand, is interested in the interplay of the cognitive, motivational, and social components of problem solving, and utilizes very complex computerized scenarios that contain up to 2,000 highly interconnected variables.

Thus, North American research on CPS has typically concentrated on examining the development of expertise in separate, natural knowledge domains. Most of the European research, in contrast, has focused on novel, complex problems, and has been performed with computerized, sometimes highly artificial tasks. Much of the North American work has been summarized in a volume edited recently by Sternberg and Frensch (1991) whereas the European research has, thus far, not been systematically and extensively reviewed. The present volume exclusively focuses on the European approach, and can thus be considered a companion volume to the Sternberg and Frensch book. The volume contains contributions from researchers in 4 European countries: Sweden, Switzerland, Great Britain, and, primarily, Germany, both the former West-Germany and the former East-Germany. The distribution of contributors, we believe, rather accurately reflects where the bulk of the empirical research on CPS has been conducted in Europe.

The contributions to this volume center around five main topics. The first three chapters are introductory chapters that provide definitions and describe the various theoretical frameworks and empirical approaches that have been offered thus far. Frensch and Funke (Chapter 1) compare various definitions of CPS and discuss the different traditions that have developed in Europe and North America. They also offer a, rather general, theoretical framework that aims at integrating the existing CPS research. Buchner (Chapter 2) discusses both the empirical approaches and the important theoretical models that have been developed in Europe. He argues that there are two main approaches to empirically studying CPS in Europe. The one approach searches for individual differences in CPS and uses naturalistic scenarios as research tool; the other approach aims at understanding two main components underlying CPS, namely the processes of knowledge acquisition and of knowledge application, and uses precisely described, but rather artificial, task environments as methodology of choice. Dörner and Wearing (Chapter 3), in the last introductory chapter, describe a rather ambitious general theoretical model of CPS that is not limited to describing the role of cognitive variables in CPS, but focuses also on the role of motivational and emotional variables.

The second group of chapters deals with general topics in CPS research, such as the role of feedback on task performance, implicit learning processes, and the relation between CPS and decision making. Brehmer (Chapter 4) presents a series of experiments that demonstrate the differential effects of different types of feedback on CPS. He argues that delay of feedback negatively affects subjects' performance, and further, that it is very difficult for subjects to re-deploy resources during the course of CPS. Berry and Broadbent (Chapter 5) deal with dissociations between what people can actually do and what they can verbalize about their actions, and argue that different types of knowledge may be independently acquired and used during complex problem solving. Huber (Chapter 6) bridges the gap between CPS research and classical decision making research. In a series of experiments, he demonstrates the importance of task variables on the decision process. If one follows his reasonable assumption that complex problems can be decomposed into smaller subproblems, then the theory behind his results could be useful in explaining at least some CPS processes as well.

The third group of chapters deals with differential aspects of CPS, such as intelligence, cognitive flexibility, and personnel selection. Beckmann and Guthke (Chapter 7) analyze the relation between CPS and intelligence. They call for a new conceptualization of intelligence as "learning ability," and empirically demonstrate the relation between learning ability and problem solving performance. Krems (Chapter 8) discusses the relation between CPS and cognitive flexibility, the latter being a precondition for the further. Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to modify hypotheses during diagnostic reasoning and trouble-shooting, and is analyzed in terms of expert-novice differences. Uwe Funke (Chapter 9) reviews how basic CPS research can be, and has been, fruitfully applied to personnel selection and training.

A fourth group of chapters deals with methodological issues in CPS. Joachim Funke (Chapter 10) reviews experimental approaches to studying CPS where the contributions of the person, the task situation, and the interaction between the person and the task situation were systematically manipulated. He also discusses when it is appropriate to use experimental methods in CPS research, and how this can be done most effectively. Kluwe (Chapter 11) discusses when and for which purpose single case studies are an appropriate methodological tool for studying CPS. He also criticizes some earlier applications of single case studies thereby making use of considerations that come from philosophy of science.

The last group of chapters, evaluation, consists of a single chapter. Here, Sternberg (Chapter 12) compares the North American and the European approaches to studying complex problem solving, and places both approaches within a common theoretical framework. Sternberg argues that the North American and the European approach constitute just two out of many possible conceptions of expertise.

This book is the result of an international cooperation that started two years ago with the idea of bringing the European research on complex problem solving to the awareness of American scholars. We hope that the contributions to this volume will be both informative and comprehensive. According to an old saying, quoted by Dietrich Dörner (1983), psychologists give answers to questions that nobody has asked, and provide no answers to the questions that have been raised. We believe--foolheartedly some might argue--that research on complex problem solving is one area where this rather pessimistic view of psychological research does not apply.

We thank the many people who have worked hard to make this book possible. First, and foremost, we are very grateful to the scholars who generously gave of their time to write chapters for this book. Judith Amsel and Kathleen Dolan of Erlbaum were very helpful in getting the project off the ground and provided support during all stages. Lisa Irmen (University of Bonn) was responsible for formatting draft versions, indexing, etc., and provided excellent feedback to each and every chapter. The Abteilung Allgemeine Psychologie at Bonn University and its chair, Jürgen Bredenkamp, and the Department of Psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia with its chair Tom DiLorenzo provided both financial and moral support whenever needed. Last but not least: this cooperative effort could never have been produced this quickly and efficiently without the existence of the Internet and email. A big thank you to our computer guys who made file exchanges and mailing so easy.

April 1994: Columbia, Missouri, USA & Bonn, Germany Peter A. Frensch & Joachim Funke

©1995 by Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ

Table of Contents


  • Chapter 1. Definitions, Traditions, and a General Framework for Understanding Complex Problem Solving (Peter Frensch and Joachim Funke) Introduction

    Definitions of Problem solving

    • Explicit Definitions
    • Explicit Versus Implicit Definitions
    • Why Do Definitions Differ?
    • The Perceived Usefulness of a Definition
    • Can We Ever Agree on a Universal Definition of Problem Solving?

    Definitions of Problem Solving: The European Approach

    • The Contributors' View
    • Historical Roots
    • The European Situation
    • An Integrated View
    • Summary

    A Theoretical Framework for Complex Problem Solving

    • Internal Subject Factors
    • External Factors
    • The Components of a Theory of CPS


  • Chapter 2. Basic Topics and Approaches to the Study of Complex Problem Solving (Axel Buchner) Introduction

    Historical and Methodological Aspects

    The Search for Individual Differences

    • Intelligence, Learning Potential, and Motivation
    • Experts versus Novices
    • Self-reflection, Heuristic Competence, and the Need to Gain Control: The Regulation of Actions

    Approaches Based on Formal Task Analyses

    • Linear Equation Systems
    • Finite State Automata

    Concluding Remarks and Future Perspectives

  • Chapter 3. Complex Problem Solving: Toward a (Computer-simulated) Theory (Dietrich Dörner and Alexander Wearing) Introduction

    The Difficulties of Planning and Decision Making in Complex, Dynamic, and Uncertain Environments

    Theoretical Accounts of Complex Problem Solving

    Some Empirical Results

    • Goal Elaboration
    • Information Collection and Hypothesis Formation
    • Forecasting
    • Planning and Dicision Making
    • Monitoring the Effects of One's Actions
    • Self-Reflection
    • Stability of Performance

    Toward a Theory of Complex Problem Solving

    • Intention Regulation
    • General Recursive Analytic-Synthetic Constellation Amplification
    • Four Determinants of Behavior
    • How to Test a Computer-Simulated Theory of Action Regulation



  • Chapter 4. Feedback Delays in Complex Dynamic Decision Tasks (Berndt Brehmer) Introduction

    The Complex Nature of Feedback Delays and the Models That They Require

    Effects of Feedback Delays in Complex Tasks

    • Experiment I: Effects of Feedback Delay With Informed Subjects
    • Experiment II: Effects of Feedback Delay on Strategies
    • Experiment III: Effects of Feedback Delay and Type of simulation
    • Experiment IV: Effects of Feedback Delay With Alerted and Informed Subjects
    General Conclusions

  • Chapter 5. Implicit Learning in the Control of Complex Systems (Dianne Berry and Donald Broadbent) Introduction

    Early Studies

    Subsequent Qualification

    Conditions and Modes of Learning

    The Problem of Mechanism

    The Model in Need of Correction


    The Evidence Requiring a change in the Theory


    A Revised Synthesis


  • Chapter 6. Complex Problem Solving as Multistage Decision Making (Oswald Huber) Introduction

    A Simple Multistage Investment Task

    Previous Findings Withg the Investment Task

    Research With the Investment Task

    • Description of Experiment
    • Decision Behavior
    • Measuring Performance Quality

    A Model of the Decision Process in the Multistage Investment Task

    • Mental Representation of the System
    • Goals Concerning Target Variables
    • Strategies for Reaching Target-Variable Goals
    • Choice of a Stake
    • Planning and Control (Metaprocesses)

    Increasing the Complexity of the Simple Investment Task



  • Chapter 7. Complex Problem Solving, Intelligence, and Learning Ability (Jens F. Beckmann and Jürgen Guthke) Introduction

    Complex Problem Solving and Intelligence

    • Empirical Research
    • Explanatory Concepts
    • Summary

    Learning Tests: Alternatives to Conventional Intelligence Tests

    • History of Learning Tests
    • Basic Concepts
    • Types of learning Tests
    • Diagnostic Programs

    Task Requirements in Complex Problem Solving Situations and in Learning Tests

    • Similiarities
    • Differences
    • Summary

    An Experimental Study on the Ability to Solve Complex Problems, the Ability to Learn, and Intelligence

    • Methods
    • Results and Discussion

    Concluding Remarks

  • Chapter 8. Cognitive Flexibility and Complex Problem Solving (Josef F. Krems) Introduction

    Cognitive Flexibility, Complex Problem Solving, and Expertise

    • Cognitive Flexibility
    • Complex Problem Solving
    • Expertise

    Cognitive Flexibility in Diagnostic Reasoning

    • Flexibility in Hypothesis Modification
    • Confirmation Bias
    • Abductive Reasoning in Trouble-Shooting
    • Computer Program Debugging

    Summary and Conclusions

  • Chapter 9. Using Complex Problem Solving Tasks in Personnel Selection and Training (Uwe Funke) Introduction

    Complex Problem Solving and Personnel Selection

    • Basic and Applied Research
    • CPS Scenarios as Diagnostic Tools
    • Measuring Simulation Performance
    • Measurement Quality

    Complex Problem Solving and Personnel Training

    • Training Needs and Training Objectives
    • Results of Learning and Training Studies
    • Comprehensive Training Programs
    • Further Aspects of Training Methods

    Summary and Conclusions


  • Chapter 10. Experimental Research on Complex Problem Solving (Joachim Funke) Introduction

    Pros and Cons of Experimental Research

    • A Critique of the Analytical Approach
    • Alternatives to ANOVA Techniques
    • Features of the Experimental Approach
    • Summary

    A Taxonomy of Variables That Affect Complex Problem Solving

    • Person Factors
    • Situation Factors
    • System Factors
    • Summary

    Experimental Research on Complex Problem Solving

    • Studies on Person Factors
    • Studies on Situation Factors
    • Studies on System Factors
    • Studies on Interaction Effects
    • Summary

    Concluding Remarks

  • Chapter 11. Single Case Studies and Models of Complex Problem Solving (Rainer H. Kluwe) Introduction

    Single Case Studies

    • Goals of Single Case Studies
    • Procedures for Single Case Studies
    • Type of Hypothesis
    • The Problem of Falsification
    • The Problem of Generalization

    Single Case Studies and the Testing of Models

    • Bhaskar and Simon (1977)
    • Anderson (1982)

    The Development of Models Based on Single Case Studies

    • Shrager and Klahr (1986)
    • Kluwe, Haider, and Misiak (1990)



  • Chapter 12. Expertise in Complex Problem Solving: A Comparison of Alternative Conceptions (Robert J. Sternberg) Introduction

    American and European Views of Expertise in Complex Problem Solving

    • The American View
    • The European View
    Received View of Expertise
    • The General-Process View
    • Knowledge-Based Views
    • The Cognitive-Complexity View
    Triarchic Conceptions of Expertise
    • Analytical Ability
    • Creative Ability
    • Automatization
    • Practical Ability
    A Labeling Conception

    Expertise as a Prototype

List of Contributors

Jens F. Beckmann, Psychologisches Institut, Universität Leipzig, Tieckstr. 2, D-04275 Leipzig, GERMANY, Email:

Dianne Berry, Department of Psychology, University of Reading, Earley Gate, Whiteknights, Reading RG6 2AL, ENGLAND, Email:

Berndt Brehmer, Department of Psychology, University of Uppsala, Box 1854, S-751 48 Uppsala, SWEDEN, Email:

Donald E. Broadbent (died 4/93), Departm. of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3UD, ENGLAND

Axel Buchner, Psychologisches Institut der Universität Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, GERMANY, Email:

Dietrich Dörner, Lehrstuhl Psychologie II, Universität Bamberg, Markusplatz 3, D-96047 Bamberg, GERMANY, Email:
For a short description of Bamberg research see also!

Peter Frensch, former adress: Department of Psychology, University of Missouri-Columbia, 210 McAlester Hall, Columbia, MI 65211, USA; current adress is: Institut für Psychologie, Humboldt-Universität, Hausvogteiplatz 5-7, D-10117 Berlin, Germany, Email:

Joachim Funke, Psychologisches Institut, Universität Heidelberg, Hauptstr. 47-51, D-69117 Heidelberg, GERMANY, Email:

Uwe Funke, Lehrstuhl für Psychologie, Universität Hohenheim, Institut 540 F, D-70593 Stuttgart, GERMANY, Email:

Jürgen Guthke, Psychologisches Institut, Universität Leipzig, Tieckstr. 2, D-04275 Leipzig, GERMANY, Email:

Oswald Huber, Psychologisches Institut, Universität Fribourg, Route des Fougères, CH-1701 Fribourg, SWITZERLAND, Email:

Rainer H. Kluwe, Institut für Kognitionsforschung, Universität der Bundeswehr, Holstenhofweg 85, D-22043 Hamburg, GERMANY, Email:

Josef F. Krems, Fachgebiet Psychologie, Technische Universität Chemnitz, D-09107 Chemnitz, GERMANY, Email:

Robert J. Sternberg, Department of Psychology, Yale University, Box 208205, New Haven, CT 06520-8205, USA

Alexander Wearing, Department of Psychology, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3052, AUSTRALIA, Email:

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