Author: Dr. Humberto Aguilera

Position: Instructor of Community Psychology at UNYP

Thinking outside of the box is a popular metaphor that referring to creative thinking in order to analyse an issue or a problem. However, when we try to do some creative thinking we don’t know where to start. Einstein suggests starting with the problem definition. How we define the problem, shape the questions we ask, the methods we use to answer those questions, and the way we interpret those answers. For instance, we may define a reading disability as a condition in which a person has difficulty reading resulting from neurological factors. This definition shapes the questions we ask: Which are the most common neurological factors involved in a reading disability? What can we do to overcome this condition?

Defining the problem requires a model for understanding the issue. In our models of understanding, we include certain variables that are connected to each other. When we defined a reading disability, we considered variables from neurological factors. However, our model of understanding of the issue is limited because we only include individual-level variables. In other words, our model is limited because it’s not the whole picture of a reading disability. We are focusing on the individual neurological deficits and we are not taking into account, for instance, the context of a reading disability or context-level variables.

Imagine that you are a member of the lowest reading group in a school. Other kids call you a clown because you can’t read well. The work in your group is repetitive and dull. In contrast, children in the highest reading group are active and the material that they review is interesting. What would happen if you were moved up to this kind of reading group? It’s likely that you’d be active and motivated. You wouldn’t feel discriminated against and you’d probably overcome your reading disability with some extra tutoring.

However, schools often try to change the children instead of changing the context for learning.  This is known in community psychology terms as an error of logical typing, borrowing this term from Watzlawick and Rappaport. In other words, action is mainly taken where it should not be. By focusing on a single level (e.g., individual neurological deficits), the intervention strategy is constrained to individual change efforts, and will be ineffective in addressing a reading disability if aspects of the problem at other levels are not addressed (e.g. the context of learning, classrooms, the policy to sort children in reading groups, etc.) This is why it’s so critical to examine how we define the problem. 

Ignoring other levels in the problem definition can be dangerous too. Others may think that your reading disability is caused by individual deficits and blame you because of that. In other words, people may think that you can’t read well because you’re too lazy to read even if you have a tutor. They could blame you because you’re not trying hard enough. This is called blaming the victim, according to William Ryan. He claims that even if we assume that personal deficits are caused by one’s family or by cultural deprivation, we still locate the deficit within the person and ignore larger factors. For instance, ignoring the school board’s policy to sort children in different reading groups according to their scores, can often lead to discrimination against children with lower scores and leave them behind in lower reading groups.  

Problems such as poverty, corruption, drug abuse, crime, or unemployment can be better understood only if we take into account multiple levels in our problem definition. 

However, it doesn’t mean that our approach will be effective at addressing the issue. Sometimes, it’s necessary to listen to the people and include their ideas into the problem definition. According to Fawcett, these are bottom-up approaches, which are relevant because they are not designed by professionals. Thus, approaches designed by professionals and non-professionals may complement each other. 

Thinking outside of the box requires identifying multiple truths, even if they oppose each other. This is called divergent reasoning. Rappaport used this term in community psychology because it is important to take into account multiple perspectives and avoid one-sided answers. A very useful task in a discussion is to start thinking how you can be wrong, instead of trying to explain other people why you are right. It’s likely that you pay more attention to other people’s ideas. 

In conclusion, problem definition requires complex models that involve multiple-level variables from multiple perspectives. These models can be very useful to carry out interventions and predict possible outcomes. However, it can be challenging to design these interventions and see if they actually work. There is no single solution to a problem. However, it’s more important to have a deeper understanding of the problem and define it properly instead of trying to solve the puzzle.

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