3 Reasons Why You Are Failing at Problem Solving We often believe that we understand the way the world works far better than we actually do. Here are three causes of our knowledge gaps and how to fix them.

By Art Markman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


The line between success and failure is often thin. An important thing you can do to put yourself on the right side of that line is to maximize the quality of your knowledge, and use strong methods to solve problems.

Early Artificial Intelligence (AI) researchers realized that the difficulty with their computer programs was that they had no real expertise in the areas in which they were solving problems, and so they had to rely on very general strategies, or weak methods of problem solving.

In contrast, strong methods for problem solving require specific knowledge about a subject. Essentially, the more you know, the better you are at solving problems.

The most important kind of knowledge that you can use to solve problems is what psychologists call causal knowledge. Causal knowledge is what you need to answer the question "why?" It is the basis of people's expertise. For example, you pay a mechanic to fix your car, because mechanics understand how cars work.

Unfortunately, even though causal knowledge is crucial for solving new problems, the quality of your knowledge may not be as good as you think it is. People suffer from a persistent illusion of explanatory depth. That is, we believe that we understand the way the world works far better than we actually do.

Related: How to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills and Make Better Business Decisions

There are several reasons why our causal knowledge is poor.

1. Opting for the "high-level view."
We often try to get the "high-level view" of how things work rather than really trying to understand the details. Unfortunately, these details often turn out to be important. Just ask the people who signed off on (and purchased) complex mortgage-backed financial instruments without understanding how they worked.

2. Using meaningless jargon.
We often have words whose meanings we don't understand that paper over gaps in our knowledge. I once attended a corporate meeting as a consultant at which an executive encouraged his team to streamline their business practices. Everyone nodded in agreement, but later that day it became clear that nobody was sure what it meant to streamline the business. The word created an illusion of comprehension in the group.

3. Only thinking of the first-level explanation.
Our explanations are nested like Russian dolls. If you have ever spent time with a five-year-old, you have experienced this nesting. The child asks you why something works. You answer, and they ask why again…and again…We believe our causal knowledge is better than it is, because we only think about that first-level explanation, and fail to keep asking ourselves why when checking to see if we understand something. A lot of people in the financial industry could give the basic description of the way the structured financial instruments worked, but they could not explain their details.

Ultimately, if you want to cure this illusion of explanatory depth, you need to take a lesson from education. Any teacher knows that the surest way to guarantee that you understand something is to teach it to someone else. The process of trying to teach something reveals all of the gaps and limitations in your knowledge.

Rather than waiting for the opportunity to teach it to someone else, though, you have to learn to teach it to yourself. That means that whenever you encounter new information, it is not enough to get the executive summary. You need to make yourself responsible for the details, because those details will become important later when you need to use that knowledge to do something.

Related: How to Cut Through the Clutter and Make the Best Decisions

Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations, which brings the humanities, social and behavioral sciences to people in business. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on human reasoning, decision making, and motivation. He is author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership. His next book, Smart Change comes out in January, 2014.

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