# Why Two Problems Are Better Than One

When you are trying to solve a very difficult problem, you may try to think about only that problem so you can remain focused. However, research done at Binghamton University in 2007 shows that this may be a mistake. Sometimes trying to solve two problems can help you come up with solutions you’d never find if you only focused on one problem.

In their study they took 293 students and gave some of them a model problem with a solution first, then one problem to solve. Another group of students got a model problem with a solution, then 2 problems to solve.

The model problems had a solution that was analogous to the problems that both groups had to solve.

The results: Only 13% of students in the first group that had to solve one problem came up with the solution. The group with two problems to solve were successful 51% of the time.

Researchers concluded that trying to solve two problems causes you to form generalizations based on previous learning that can help you solve a current problem. So the second group was able to use what they learned from the previous problem they were shown.

Most people it turns out are not able to quickly see how the solutions of past problems can help them today and that’s why the first group had such a low success rate.

This means that by trying to solve two similar problems today, you can profit from lessons learned in the past more effectively.

The key though is that the two problems you try to solve must have a similar underlying structure. So to use this idea next time you have a problem you might ask yourself “What’s a similar problem that also needs a solution?”

If you consider that problem in addition to the one you’re working on, you may find that you come up with a solution a lot quicker.

So how will you use this information to solve your next problem? Please leave me your answers in the comments section below.

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Right now I’m struggling with two problems that feel related to me — whether to make the easy/cheap choice or the morally preferable choice both in selecting replacement windows and in deciding whether to leave evil CitiBank and get a different credit card. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of a model problem for me to look at! But hopefully whatever methods I come up with for making one of these decisions will also apply to the other.

Riley,

Thanks for commenting. Fortunately, if you’ve solved a similar problem in the past by considering both problems you’ll find that you are able to access concepts from the similar problem. You may not be consciously aware of this process though.

If you have high expectations of success in solving one of these problems try Mental Contrasting on that problem and see if that helps as that also allows you to access mental maps related the problem. I’d love to hear what happens.

Rodney