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Think With Your Hands for Better Problem Solving

New research is challenging the notion that thinking, problem solving, and decision making take place strictly in the head. And finally giving me some credibility when placing interactive toys in the middle of my mediation table.

How do you put 17 animals in four pens in such a way that there is an odd number of animals in each pen?

Wait, let me help. I’ll give you a choice of two aides for working out the solution: You can have a tablet computer with stylus for sketching out the answer. Or you can have materials to make small models. Which aide will best help you find the solution?

That’s the task researchers at Kingston University assigned to study participants. And it turned out the model-builders were much more likely to discover the solution. Said Professor Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau,

We showed with this study that for some types of problem – regardless of an individual’s cognitive ability – being able to physically interact with tools gave people a fighting chance of solving it. By contrast, a pen and paper-type method almost guaranteed they wouldn’t be able to. It demonstrates how interacting with the world can really benefit people’s performance.

Colleague Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau went on,

When you write or draw, the action itself makes you think differently. In cognitive psychology you are trained to see the mind as a computer, but we’ve found that people don’t think that way in the real world. If you give them something to interact with they think in a different way.

This study, along with a second study from the same university, suggest that using tools or objects when problem solving can spark new ways of finding solutions. I’m sure down with that as a conflict resolutionary.

Back in my days as a college dean, I kept a basket full of interactive toys on the conference table in my office. I initially did it to help reduce the anxiety for students “called in to see the dean.” But I discovered that my staff liked them just as much as students did, and that when we were all trying to solve a problem together, hands absent-mindedly reached for that basket.

To this day, I pack a few of the same toys for some of my mediations. It’s the rare mediation that someone doesn’t reach for the objects I’ve set out, and I’ve had more than a few mediations where all the participants worked together on something — without a word being uttered about the construction project they were sharing.

Did it help? Can’t say. But this latest research suggests something’s there, especially if the tools or object allows the user to construct or interact with it.

These are some of my favorites:

Oh, right. Still wondering how to get 17 animals in the 4 pens? The solution requires a configuration with overlapping pens.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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