On the scope of problem solving

Subrato Banerjee

Is problem-solving an intrinsic human trait… or is it restricted to those involved in the sciences and management?

During my stay in Lisbon, primarily for a conference on game theory, I became friends with visitors from Brazil, with whom I settled on a day-long drive to nearby areas for some tourism activity. Brazilians, for their colonial history, speak Portuguese well enough (by my standards at least). Since my distinctly Bengali name ends with the letter ‘o’ (as is also the case with many Portuguese names), I hoped that my fellow travellers would pronounce my name correctly (contrary to my experience from previous international conferences). However, too reluctant to even try, they found a convenient replacement for my name – my first name became ‘Sebastian’, and my surname, ‘Benedict’. Problem solved! Sebastian Benedict, as they happily confirmed, was now one of them.

This story neatly sums up a problem of any linguist’s interest. The reason, for example, why many Bengalis pronounce ‘wonder´ as ‘’oaan-der’ is simply because the letter that corresponds to the sound of ‘w’ in English is not there in the Bengali script. The solution to the problem of limited script is in finding the set of letters (in the correct order) that most closely approximate the sound of the letter ‘w’ in English. The story is the same with the letters ‘f’ (often replaced by ‘ph’), or ‘v’ (often replaced by ‘bh’) and so on. The objective remains clear – to pronounce English words as correctly as possible, but there are common constraints – any particular group of Bengalis is armed with the exact same script with phonetic-limitations … and therefore have a more-or-less unique way of (mis)pronouncing certain words in English – the very reason why it is possible to identify a Bengali from the style of speaking in English. This argument easily extends to people who learn new languages. The reason why it is easy to tell South Indians from Bengalis through their styles of speaking in English is because they can be seen as solving the same problem … but while facing different constraints. This is much like how two people staying at different distances from the airport must necessarily wake up at different times to catch the same early morning flight. They solve the problem of deciding what time to wake up, given the distance to the airport as the primary constraint. That’s right … we all solve problems at any given time, whether or not we realise.

Coming back to the story of Sebastian Benedict: the day before I was to return to Delhi, I spent the evening visiting a couple of tourist spots close to my hotel. After visiting Torre De Belém – my first stop, I stopped by my hotel to collect my jacket and take directions to my second stop – St. Jorge’s castle, from the receptionist who asked me to use the public elevators to get there quickly … and was careful enough to add that I wouldn’t be able to use them after nine.

At five past five I was in the castle from where a significant portion of Lisbon was visible. With adequate light, the moment was just right to hone my photography skills (which, to admit the truth, still need a lot of honing). Lured by the architecture, I ventured my way in through the gates that stood high at over ten feet. The walls were higher still. The view from inside, of the three flags that touched the sky was breathtaking. The castle was not crowded so it was easy to find a spot with no one around to do an undisturbed recording of a video of the waving flags. After the recording, I decided to head out and was shocked to learn that the gate from which I had entered was shut. What had happened? It was quarter past six and the hotel receptionist had never informed me (as he conceded later) that the castle was supposed to close at six. Being surrounded by very high walls, it wasn’t clear if I could somehow make it out of the castle that night … but what became immediately clear was why no one was actually around when I was recording my video.

All I could think of was getting out of there (with all due respect to the architectural masterpiece). It took some presence of mind to figure out that, the only way out was to take the stairs that went further into the castle. Here’s an explanation to the apparently counter-intuitive idea: the high-walls around me made it impossible to look for any human activity outside … to shout for help. The flight of stairs that actually took me upward solved that problem. In fact, I was soon walking along the fence that held the very waving flags that I admired. I positioned myself next to a lamp post (at the altitude of the bulb) to look down and wait for someone to (hopefully) pass by. A guard did and I didn’t miss the chance to shout “hello” loudly enough to catch attention. He immediately had the gate opened for me.

Before rushing down the stairs, I absorbed one last view of Lisbon from the castle. It was not even half past six by the time I was out, but that experience seemed like a lifetime. Now I realise that my mind was so occupied with the thoughts of getting out, that I didn’t do a video of the waving flags precisely when I stood closest to them. Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir offer an explanation in their recent book titled ‘Scarcity’: any human mind has an effective bandwidth used to focus on immediate problems at hand. Sometimes this focus becomes so narrow that the mind automatically ignores other things (often obvious and simple) that fall out of the zone of focus.

In fact, prepaid cab service centres inside the airports often capitalise on such costs of problem-solving. I wanted to be home as quickly as possible after exiting the airport. I evaluated my choices: the post-paid taxi driver had every incentive to take a longer route … and consequently take longer to reach (at a higher fare). Therefore, pre-paid taxi made sense … and what if I didn’t get a better deal just after exiting the airport (since I could not re-enter the airport after I had exited it)? … Or what if there wasn’t a pre-paid booth outside at all? Would I take a pre-emptive stance in favour of making a pre-paid booking inside the airport? It is interesting that one doesn’t consider the possibility that many taxi drivers waiting outside would compete against each other with better offers for me (these thoughts are outside the mind’s zone of focus – the motive of reaching early). Cab centres inside airports take this psyche into account in setting their fares, which by the way, are almost thrice as much as those offered by drivers outside the airport. I just went and asked a prepaid booth inside the airport about the approximate fare (but did not make a booking) … and then settled for just over one-third of that approximate fare with the cabby I meet outside the airport. Missing out on the images of the flags earlier had clearly made me aware of the need to widen my mental bandwidth … to the extent that I could take the right decisions even after being mentally drained from an at least eight-hour-long flight. An element of problem solving is embedded in almost everything we do, and not just in professional situations – and this realisation can be testified by all versions of me … including Sebastian Benedict.

Acknowledgements: The author acknowledges the valuable inputs from Priyanka Joshi.

Subrato dedicates this article to David Savage in his memory.


Subrato Banerjee
is a behavioral economist at the BEST Centre, QUT, Brisbane, an honorary fellow at the Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne and an Assistant Professor at IIT-Bombay.