An operant analysis of problem solving

Behavioral and Brain Sciences 7 (4):583-591 (1984)
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Abstract

Behavior that solves a problem is distinguished by the fact that it changes another part of the solver's behavior and is strengthened when it does so. Problem solving typically involves the construction of discriminative stimuli. Verbal responses produce especially useful stimuli, because they affect other people. As a culture formulates maxims, laws, grammar, and science, its members behave more effectively without direct or prolonged contact with the contingencies thus formulated. The culture solves problems for its members, and does so by transmitting the verbal discriminative stimuli called rules. Induction, deduction, and the construction of models are ways of producing rules. Behavior that solves a problem may result from direct shaping by contingencies or from rules constructed either by the problem solver or by others. Because different controlling variables are involved, contingency-shaped behavior is never exactly like rule-governed behavior. The distinction must take account of a system which establishes certain contingencies of reinforcement, such as some part of the natural environment, a piece of equipment, or a verbal community; the behavior shaped and maintained by these contingencies; rules, derived from the contingencies, which specify discriminative stimuli, responses, and consequences, and the behavior occasioned by the rules.

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