Why are psychologists playing games?

Gill Hill explains why investigating creative problem solving is sometimes – quite literally – child’s play.

People might be surprised to hear that the games they played as children can help scientists to explain how people think. For example, researchers have recently used rock, paper scissors as a model for decision making. Furthermore, chess is seen as a pursuit for ‘thinkers’ around the world, and we have consequently seen lots of research exploring psychological processes whilst people play.

Aha! and Uh-oh! 

AhaI am interested in a type of creative problem solving called insight, which is when you suddenly have a new idea or understanding. These instances of epiphany are also referred to as an Aha!, Eureka! or ‘Penny Dropping’ Moment.

Uh-ohHowever, I’ve also identified that these flashes of comprehension are not always experienced as moments of happiness: as well as Aha! moments, we can have Uh-oh! feelings, too. Whilst this initial Uh-oh! moment is unpleasant, what it does do is alert us to problems, and motivate us to try and fix them. Therefore Uh-oh! moments are ultimately useful.

Connect 4

And that’s where games come into my research. The problem with current research methods that give light bulb moments in the lab. is that they only provide positive Aha’s: I needed Uh-oh’s as well!

Connect 4Connect 4 seemed perfect to give mini experiences of both. When you play you might choose your next move by searching logically through the possibilities (serial search, unlikely to give you a buzz); or alternatively a move might suddenly jump out at you as an insight. Furthermore, this move might be positive (an Aha!), getting you closer to winning; or negative (an Uh-oh!) as you realize your opponent could gain the upper hand.

Lemur Connect 4The best bit is that Connect 4 can be played by a range of participants – even lemurs! This means that we now have the potential to explore positive and negative insight, and can explore lots of exciting angles. Such as:  What happens in our brains and bodies when we have Aha! and Uh-oh! moments? Do children experience these light bulb moments in the same way as adults? What about insight in animals?

Find out more about how Connect 4 provides Aha! and Uh-oh! moments in my recent paper. You might also be interested in reading about insight moments in Cryptic Crosswords.


Image sources:

Table top games: http://www.boltonlams.co.uk/whats-on/1934/table-top-games-horwich-library

Children playing Connect 4: Waldie’s World, Flickr downloaded on 22.07.17 from https://flic.kr/p/eHMnr1

Lemur tweet: https://twitter.com/

1 thought on “Why are psychologists playing games?

  1. Pingback: Crossword News November 2018 | The Crossword Centre

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