The Influence of Attentional Selectivity on Insight and Analytic Problem Solving


Selective attention enables people to focus on a small number of objects, features, or events with good resolution. Sometimes attention may also be less selective and distributed across numerous items, which allows more information to be processed at a lower resolution. The degree to which attention is more or less selective has been linked to analytic and insight problem solving, respectively. In four studies, we examined how manipulating the selectivity of attention in space affects subsequent problem solving and how selectivity of attention across time may be related to problem solving tendencies. In Studies 1 and 2, we investigated how inducing more selective attention changes insight and analysis on a verbal problem solving task. In two experiments, we found that people who attended to the global level of hierarchical letter stimuli increased analytic, but not insight, solving compared to baseline. However, attention to the local level of hierarchical letters did not consistently induce more analytic solving across both experiments. Attention to the global letter demands more selective attention because incongruent local letters conflict with the representation of the global letter, which is reflected in larger congruency effects than when attending to the local level. Thus, in a third experiment, we manipulated the saliency of the global level of information, which changes the amount of conflict inherently present within the global letter, to increase or decrease the relative amount of selective attention required for the task. People who attended to global letters that were locally-salient (i.e., the identities of incompatible local letters strongly interfered with the global letter) demonstrated larger congruency effects and subsequently increased analytic solving compared to baseline. Additionally, people with less selective attention tended to solve problems with insight at baseline whereas people with more selective attention tended to solve problems with analysis at baseline. In Study 3, we investigated how inducing less selective attention changes insight and analytic problem solving. We found that people who performed an ensemble statistics task that required distributed attention also subsequently solved more verbal problems with insight than at baseline. However, people who performed a version of the ensemble statistics task in which they judged the size of a single circle, which may have required more selective attention, did not subsequently change in either insight or analytic problem solving. And finally, in Study 4, we explored how individual differences in attentional blinks are related to the tendency to solve problems with insight or analysis. Some people, known as nonblinkers, can avoid attentional blinks by allotting less attention to irrelevant distractors while other people, known as blinkers, invest too much attention on these distractors and demonstrate deep attentional blinks. Correlations between the magnitude of the attentional blink and problem solving were not reliable, but there was a negative trend between attentional blink magnitudes and insight solving and a positive trend between attentional blink magnitudes and analytic solving. Nonblinkers reliably solved more problems with insight than analysis in general, but blinkers did not solve reliably more problems with either solving process. Nonblinkers also tended to solve more problems with insight than blinkers, while blinkers tended to solve more problems with analysis than nonblinkers, but these findings were only marginally reliable. The findings from our study extend the literature on the role of attention in problem solving processes. Modulating visual attention appears to influence conceptual attention, which, in turn, biases insight or analytic problem solving. Specifically, less selective or more distributed attention is conducive to insight problem solving whereas more selective attention facilitates analytic solving.

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