Social Problem-Solving

Part of: Problem Solving

Social problem-solving might also be called ‘problem-solving in real life’. In other words, it is a rather academic way of describing the systems and processes that we use to solve the problems that we encounter in our everyday lives.

The word ‘social’ does not mean that it only applies to problems that we solve with other people, or, indeed, those that we feel are caused by others. The word is simply used to indicate the ‘real life’ nature of the problems, and the way that we approach them.

Social problem-solving is generally considered to apply to four different types of problems:

  • Impersonal problems, for example, shortage of money;
  • Personal problems, for example, emotional or health problems;
  • Interpersonal problems, such as disagreements with other people; and
  • Community and wider societal problems, such as litter or crime rate.

A Model of Social Problem-Solving

One of the main models used in academic studies of social problem-solving was put forward by a group led by Thomas D’Zurilla.

This model includes three basic concepts or elements:

  • Problem-solving

    This is defined as the process used by an individual, pair or group to find an effective solution for a particular problem. It is a self-directed process, meaning simply that the individual or group does not have anyone telling them what to do. Parts of this process include generating lots of possible solutions and selecting the best from among them.

  • Problem

    A problem is defined as any situation or task that needs some kind of a response if it is to be managed effectively, but to which no obvious response is available. The demands may be external, from the environment, or internal.

  • Solution

    A solution is a response or coping mechanism which is specific to the problem or situation. It is the outcome of the problem-solving process.

Once a solution has been identified, it must then be implemented. D’Zurilla’s model distinguishes between problem-solving (the process that identifies a solution) and solution implementation (the process of putting that solution into practice), and notes that the skills required for the two are not necessarily the same. It also distinguishes between two parts of the problem-solving process: problem orientation and actual problem-solving.

Problem Orientation

Problem orientation is the way that people approach problems, and how they set them into the context of their existing knowledge and ways of looking at the world.

Each of us will see problems in a different way, depending on our experience and skills, and this orientation is key to working out which skills we will need to use to solve the problem.

An Example of Orientation

Most people, on seeing a spout of water coming from a loose joint between a tap and a pipe, will probably reach first for a cloth to put round the joint to catch the water, and then a phone, employing their research skills to find a plumber.

A plumber, however, or someone with some experience of plumbing, is more likely to reach for tools to mend the joint and fix the leak. It’s all a question of orientation.


Problem-solving includes four key skills:

  1. Defining the problem,
  2. Coming up with alternative solutions,
  3. Making a decision about which solution to use, and
  4. Implementing that solution.

Based on this split between orientation and problem-solving, D’Zurilla and colleagues defined two scales to measure both abilities.

They defined two orientation dimensions, positive and negative, and three problem-solving styles, rational, impulsive/careless and avoidance.

They noted that people who were good at orientation were not necessarily good at problem-solving and vice versa, although the two might also go together.

It will probably be obvious from these descriptions that the researchers viewed positive orientation and rational problem-solving as functional behaviours, and defined all the others as dysfunctional, leading to psychological distress.

The skills required for positive problem orientation are:

  • Being able to see problems as ‘challenges’, or opportunities to gain something, rather than insurmountable difficulties at which it is only possible to fail.

    For more about this, see our page on The Importance of Mindset;

  • Believing that problems are solvable. While this, too, may be considered an aspect of mindset, it is also important to use techniques of Positive Thinking;

  • Believing that you personally are able to solve problems successfully, which is at least in part an aspect of self-confidence.

    See our page on Building Confidence for more;

  • Understanding that solving problems successfully will take time and effort, which may require a certain amount of resilience; and

  • Motivating yourself to solve problems immediately, rather than putting them off.

    See our pages on Self-Motivation and Time Management for more.

Those who find it harder to develop positive problem orientation tend to view problems as insurmountable obstacles, or a threat to their well-being, doubt their own abilities to solve problems, and become frustrated or upset when they encounter problems.

The skills required for rational problem-solving include:

There is more about the rational problem-solving process on our page on Problem-Solving.

Potential Difficulties

Those who struggle to manage rational problem-solving tend to either:

  • Rush things without thinking them through properly (the impulsive/careless approach), or
  • Avoid them through procrastination, ignoring the problem, or trying to persuade someone else to solve the problem (the avoidance mode).

This ‘avoidance’ is not the same as actively and appropriately delegating to someone with the necessary skills (see our page on Delegation Skills for more).

Instead, it is simple ‘buck-passing’, usually characterised by a lack of selection of anyone with the appropriate skills, and/or an attempt to avoid responsibility for the problem.

An Academic Term for a Human Process?

You may be thinking that social problem-solving, and the model described here, sounds like an academic attempt to define very normal human processes. This is probably not an unreasonable summary.

However, breaking a complex process down in this way not only helps academics to study it, but also helps us to develop our skills in a more targeted way. By considering each element of the process separately, we can focus on those that we find most difficult: maximum ‘bang for your buck’, as it were.