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Durham University

School of Education

Research Projects

Publication details

Beckmann, J.F., Birney, D. P. & Goode, N. (2017). Beyond psychometrics: the difference between difficult problem solving and complex problem solving. Frontiers in Psychology 8: 1739.

Author(s) from Durham


In this paper we argue that a synthesis of findings across the various sub-areas of research in complex problem solving and consequently progress in theory building is hampered by an insufficient differentiation of complexity and difficulty. In the proposed framework of person, task, and situation (PTS), complexity is conceptualized as a quality that is determined by the cognitive demands that the characteristics of the task and the situation impose. Difficulty represents the quantifiable level of a person’s success in dealing with such demands. We use the well-documented “semantic effect” as an exemplar for testing some of the conceptual assumptions derived from the PTS framework. We demonstrate how a differentiation between complexity and difficulty can help take beyond a potentially too narrowly defined psychometric perspective and subsequently gain a better understanding of the cognitive mechanisms behind this effect. In an empirical study a total of 240 university students were randomly allocated to one of four conditions. The four conditions resulted from contrasting the semanticity level of the variable labels used in the CPS system (high vs. low) and two instruction conditions for how to explore the CPS system’s causal structure (starting with the assumption that all relationships between variables existed vs. starting with the assumption that none of the relationships existed). The variation in the instruction aimed at inducing knowledge acquisition processes of either (1) systematic elimination of presumptions, or (2) systematic compilation of a mental representation of the causal structure underpinning the system. Results indicate that (a) it is more complex to adopt a “blank slate” perspective under high semanticity as it requires processes of inhibiting prior assumptions, and (b) it seems more difficult to employ a systematic heuristic when testing against presumptions. In combination, situational characteristics, such as the semanticity of variable labels, have the potential to trigger qualitatively different tasks. Failing to differentiate between ‘task’ and ‘situation’ as independent sources of complexity and treating complexity and difficulty synonymously threaten the validity of performance scores obtained in CPS research.

School of Education