Set to Solve: How Emphasizing Problem Setting can Solve Problems in Washington

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Americans hate Congress. A recent Gallup poll found that 78% of people disapprove of the way the legislature does its job. Asked why, nearly everyone points to the general “gridlock” in Washington and/or the lack of progress on specific issues like the budget deficit, gun control, healthcare, and immigration. Americans expect their government to solve problems and the 113th Congress is on pace to be the least productive in history.

Despite the lack of legislation passed in recent years, politicians do recognize (or at least claim to recognize) that people want their elected officials to get things done. In accepting the Democratic nomination for a second term in office, President Obama assured the electorate that “our problems can be solved, our challenges can be met.” In Congress, a bipartisan coalition – calling themselves the Problem Solvers – has come together seeking to “break through the gridlock in Washington” and to “create a new politics of problem-solving in America.” Even House Speaker John Boehner describes himself as “a legislator focused on real solutions” on his website.

If everyone agrees that the government’s job is to problem solve, why don’t we see more solutions coming out of Washington? One hackneyed narrative is that Republicans and Democrats have adopted different ideas for solving the nations problems and refuse to compromise: Everyone can see what the problems are, but we just can’t agree on how to solve them.

In fact, there may a deeper issue rooted in how we think about legislation. When we describe policy-making as a kind of problem solving, we equate the government with a mathematician or scientist who, through careful study and deliberation, should be able to logically deduce the right answer to any problem. Linguistically, problems can be solved. Everyone from ‘90s rapper Vanilla Ice to Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman know this. Ice sings “If there was a problem, yo I’ll solve it; Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it.” So simple you can dance through the resolution. Similarly, Feynman explains the three steps that enabled him to solve some of the most challenging problems in physics: “1. Write down the problem. 2. Think very hard. 3. Write down the answer” (Pearson, Hattikudur & Green, 2006, p. 60).

These quotations are comical because the language of problem solving makes the process seem trivially easy, which, of course, is rarely the case. Political problems are often really hard. Psychologists distinguish between well- and ill-defined problems and social issues are prototypically ill-defined. There aren’t a finite set of pieces on the board or a set of rules that govern play. Lawmakers can have a hard time figuring out where things stand and how to reach a desirable goal.

But I don’t think this is the only reason that our political system is stuck. Coming up with solutions for political problems has always been hard. The 24 hour news cycle, culture of continuous campaigning, and fervently obstructionist wing of the Republican Party may add new wrinkles, but they don’t completely explain why this Congress has reached an historic low.

We seem to be at the pinnacle of an arms race of doublespeak. To get back down the mountain, we need to acknowledge the real problems that face society – and at a much more specific level.

Instead, the emphasis on problem solving itself may be partly to blame. Problems are impossible to solve when no one agrees on what the problems are, and right now, no one agrees on what the problems are. This is a failure of “problem setting” not “problem solving.” Politicians are wizards of vague policy discourse, appealing to vague catch-alls – reducing crime, improving education, reforming immigration, and restoring economic health – rather than concrete descriptions of real life issues.

Consider how Obama and Romney answered questions about the economy in the second presidential debate of 2012. When a college student asked, “What can you say to reassure me…that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?” Romney highlighted the increasing national debt and the need to make America competitive in a global market, while Obama pointed to the inequity of income distribution and his plan to create new manufacturing jobs. When we allow our politicians to talk about problems at a high level, we let them cherry pick a narrative and the facts that support it.

Indeed, political consultants encourage lawmakers to use language to mask substantive discussion. In Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate—The Essential Guide for Progressives, George Lakoff, noted Berkeley linguist, calls attention to the way Republicans strategically use terms like “pro-life,” “tax-relief,” and “family values” as a way to make it impossible for people to argue against their platforms; no one wants to be “anti-life,” “pro-tax-oppression,” or “anti-family”. His response is to coach Democrats on how to use language to more persuasively frame progressive policies (i.e., mask their own substantive ideas with positive sounding buzzwords and metaphors).

We seem to be at the pinnacle of an arms race of doublespeak. To get back down the mountain, we need to acknowledge the real problems that face society – and at a much more specific level. Instead of broad statements about improving the economy, fixing education, or solving immigration, our politicians must identify, in specific terms, what they see as the major challenges facing the country.

In other words, we need to do a better job of following the first step of Feynman’s method for problem solving: we need to write our problems down. Incidentally, Feynman isn’t the only physicist who believes in the importance of problem setting. Einstein wrote that “the formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution,” adding “if I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Problem setting is a necessary and under-appreciated precursor to problem solving. Seminal experiments in psychology illustrate how solving problems can hinge on how they are set. This is not a trivial shift in focus. Not only do we need to emphasize problem setting over problem solving, we need to think about the consequences of how we frame our problems. The way we set problems can profoundly and sometimes unwittingly influence how we think about solutions.

Indeed, one of the best-known psychological experiments showed how a subtle change in the way a problem is framed, can dramatically influence how people think about it (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). In the study, people learned that the lives of 600 people were in jeopardy and that one of two programs could be adopted in response. One of these programs was a sure bet, guaranteed to save 200 lives and let 400 die; the other was a gamble – it would save everyone with a 1/3 probability and no one with a 2/3 probability. Even though the two options feel psychologically different, they are mathematically the same. There were two groups in the study: for one, the programs were framed as a gain (Program A: 200 people will be saved; Program B: there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved). In this case nearly three quarters of participants chose the sure bet. In the other group the options were framed as a loss (Program C: 400 people will die; Program D: there is a 1/3 probability nobody will die). In this case more than three quarters of participants gambled. A single word dramatically changed peoples’ preference even though the word didn’t change any substantive feature of the underlying problem or programs.

The way we talk about political and social issues has real consequences for how we think about them.

In my own work I have found that metaphors can induce similar differences in how people conceptualize problems (Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2011 & 2013). In one set of studies, people who read that crime was a “virus” were 18% more likely to suggest reducing crime by instituting social reform programs than people who had read that crime was a “beast.” Those who read that crime was a beast were more likely to suggest reducing crime through increased law enforcement and prison sentences.

In this series of studies I also found that despite the large influence of the metaphor, very few people recognized the contribution of the metaphoric frame on their thinking. Less than 3% identified the metaphor as “influential” on their decision and even those who forgot which metaphor they read showed an influence of the frame. This suggests that a metaphor’s power to constrain how we think might often go undetected.

The fact that metaphors influence how people think about important policy problems is particularly interesting because metaphors suffuse discussions of social and political issues. Newspaper headlines, for instance, depict a world where political parties fight wars against each other (and against other metaphorical wars), as in “Democrats Battle Back against Republican ‘War on Women’” and economies grow like plants, as in “From Tiny Seeds of Ideas, a Mighty Economy Grows”. Metaphors enable us to think and communicate about concepts that are too complex or abstract to grasp outright; social and political issues are prototypical examples of complex and abstract problems.

Outside the lab, anecdotal evidence suggests that the use of metaphors to set problems influences problem solving in the real world. Donald Schon and Martin Rein (1994) describe how politicians embraced a disease metaphor for Boston’s old West End housing projects in the 1950s, calling them “blighted,” “unsanitary,” and “unsightly.” Schon and Rein argue that describing the projects with this metaphor set a problem in a way that committed the city to tearing down all of the buildings in the neighborhood: “It would not be enough, the experts said, to remove the offensive structures piecemeal… Just as in medicine one must treat the whole person, so in urban renewal one must treat the whole community” (p. 27). Unfortunately for the inhabitants of these neighborhoods, this metaphor focuses on the buildings of the West End rather than the people, who were dislocated and disenfranchised.

More recently, the criminal justice scholar George Kelling has implicated a bad metaphor as the root of failure in crime prevention. He describes how police forces have become entrenched in a metaphor of hunting and catching criminals, causing them to neglect their responsibility to protect the communities they serve. He describes a case in which a serial rapist attacked 11 girls over a 15-month period. During this time, the police apparently had information that could have prevented some of the attacks, had they shared it with the community. However, they chose to keep the information private in order to set traps for their suspect. They eventually caught the rapist but several innocent women were sacrificed in the process. The girls, Kelling writes, ‘‘were victims… not only of a rapist, but of a metaphor’’ (p. 1; 1991). Clearly, the way we talk about political and social issues has real consequences for how we think about them.

So what does this mean for our political system today? I’ve tried to make two points. First, I think we need to change what we emphasize in politics. Rather than asking our politicians to solve problems, we should encourage them to reflect on what the real problems are. We should demand that they be problem setters rather than problem solvers. Second, in setting these problems, we should be creative and collaborative. We should think about the kinds of responses they promote and whether different framings would promote different actions. Agreeing on the problems that face the country is the first step to real progress.