I’m increasingly jealous of people with fantastic working memories — as psychologists define it, the ability to ”hold and manipulate information in a temporary active state.” These people can get where they’re going without constantly staring at the GPS, can remember new people’s names from the beginning to the end of the conversation, and don’t have to re-read the recipe between every added teaspoon. How nice that must be! How freeing!
But new research does offer a ray of hope to those of us who can’t break eye contact with Google Maps and conclude networking conversations with the usefully ambiguous, “Nice to see you!”
Marci DeCaro, Charles Van Stockum Jr, and Mareike Wieth explain the results of two experiments in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.
Having a high working memory capacity (WMC) generally helps with problem-solving by allowing us to avoid distractions, pull up relevant information, and complete multiple steps in a complex task. But not all problems benefit from that approach.
Previous research has shown that people with high WMC will choose problem-solving strategies that play to their strengths, adding more steps and complexity to the process than are strictly necessary — or efficient. Researchers have also found that high WMC individuals will direct the power of focused attention on activities that are actually performed better without it (such as dribbling a soccer ball or touch-typing).
DeCaro, Van Stockum, and Wieth wanted to examine how working memory capacity influenced a specific type of problem: insight problems. These are problems that don’t benefit from an incremental, step-by-step approach, but instead tend to be solved by reframing the issue. If you’ve ever had an “aha” moment, you may have just solved an insight problem.
The researchers began by subjecting participants to a test in which matchsticks had been arranged into nonsensical equations made of Roman numerals. Participants were instructed to make the equations make sense, by moving a single matchstick. As they expected, people who’d shown high WMC (as measured in a previous exam) were less likely to solve the problem — perhaps because they continued to try multiple incremental approaches for longer when it would have been better to give up and try reframing the problem or use lateral, associative thinking.
They then conducted a second experiment using seven word problems. Three of these were incremental problems, three were insight problems, and one was a very easy incremental problem to use as practice. (Here’s an example of an insight problem: Water lilies double in area every 24 hours. At the beginning of the summer, there is one water lily on the lake. It takes 60 days for the lake to become completely covered with water lilies. On which day is the lake half-covered?* Incremental word problems are the logic puzzles that involve a series of requirements, like the famous fox, goose, and bag of beans problem.)
This time, they initially saw that high working memory capacity had no impact on the insight problems, but that changed after controlling for some of the problem-solving processes shared by both incremental and insight problems (such as initial representation of the problem). This led them to theorize that high working memory capacity might be especially detrimental to specific aspects of solving insight problems (such as restructuring them).
How counterintuitive is this? Well, there’s a huge body of research out there that shows that having a high WMC is better than not having one, and that the ability to focus your attention generally leads to better results on cognitive tasks. But there’s also a growing body of evidence that this is not always the case. As the researchers write, “These findings are consistent with a growing body of research demonstrating that lower WMC is advantageous to tasks relying on more associative or procedural processes (DeCaro & Beilock, 2010). These findings are also consistent with others in the problem-solving domain demonstrating that individual difference and situational factors that disrupt attentional control facilitate insight, such as frontal lobe impairment (Reverberi et al., 2005), moderate alcohol intoxication (Jarosz et al., 2012), or solving problems at one’s nonoptimal time of day (Wieth & Zacks, 2011).”
The upshot: If you’re the sort of person who remembers everything and proceeds methodically, perhaps the next time you look for insight you should start by having a glass of wine.
*The 59th day.