Stymied by a Tricky Problem? Why Talking Out Loud Might Help.

Stymied by a Tricky Problem? Why Talking Out Loud Might Help.

Psychology November 14, 2016 / By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
Stymied by a Tricky Problem? Why Talking Out Loud Might Help.

Talking out loud to ourselves seems like a goofy thing to do - but research suggests that this can help us solve problems more effectively.

I once had a violin teacher who had this amusing habit of talking out loud to himself. Essentially offering a running play-by-play of whatever he was doing at the moment, whether he was sharpening a pencil, typing an email, or packing the trunk of a car.

I thought it was a personal quirk, but as the years have gone by, I’ve caught myself talking out loud on occasion.

And it seems I’m not alone in doing so.

What’s up with this? Are we just weirdos?

Or is there something about talking out loud that is actually productive and helpful when it comes to solving problems we might face when trying to improve our skills in the practice room, on the court, or even the golf course?

Thinking out loud

A variety of studies, dating back as far as the early 60’s, have found thinking aloud to enhance problem-solving, learning, and our ability to transfer learning from one task to another.

How exactly?

It’s been suggested that verbalizing our thoughts forces us to slow down, stop, and think through the important elements of the task or problem in front of us more carefully, deliberately, and consciously. It induces us to zoom out and adopt a big-picture view of the problem where we can focus more on our problem-solving process.

Umm…so what does that really mean, and what exactly are we supposed to say when we talk out loud to ourselves? Simply narrate what we’re doing as we do it? Give ourselves some encouragement when the going gets tough? Verbalize whatever thoughts pop into our heads, whether it’s relevant or not?

Five different approaches

A group of researchers put together a series of studies to test several such strategies in hopes of better understanding how to maximize the “talking-aloud effect.“

109 participants were tasked with solving different variations of the Tower of Hanoi puzzle (try it yourself right here) in the fewest number of moves, before being given a final test on the most challenging variation (to see how effectively they could transfer what they’ve learned to a new problem).

Participants were randomly assigned to one of five groups, each of which was designed to test a different kind of thinking aloud.

Before each move, the “metacognitive” group was asked to answer questions like “How are you deciding which disk to move next?” or “How do you know that this is a good move?” The idea was to get them to adopt a higher-level process focus, by thinking about what they were doing (consciously monitoring performance) and how they were doing – i.e. whether the move was a good one or not (evaluating success/failure/effectiveness).

The “if-then” group’s instructions were a little more rigidly structured, but similarly intended to get them focused on the problem-solving process: “Before each move, I want you to tell me where you are going to move each disk, and why. Specifically, I want you to state this in an ‘if-then’ statement, for example, ‘if I move this disk to this peg, then this will happen’.”

The “problem-focused” group was asked to answer questions like “What is the goal of the problem?” or “What are the rules of the problem?” before each move. The idea was to give them some structure, but not at the higher process level of the other two groups.

The “think-aloud” control group was given no real structure to guide their thinking, but simply told to “think out loud while you are solving this problem. Try to keep talking as much as you can so that I can hear what you are thinking about as you solve the problem.”

The “silent” control group was given no additional instructions beyond the standard instructions for the puzzle, so did no verbalizing of their thoughts.

The results

So how did the groups do?

The researchers evaluated groups’ effectiveness by counting how many excess moves the participants made. In other words, each variation of the puzzle can be solved in a certain number of moves, so any moves above and beyond the minimum number of moves needed to solve the puzzle were considered “error” or mistake moves.

On average, the control groups (silent and think-aloud) made more mistakes than the two process-focused (metacognitive and if-then) groups. This was true for every variation of the puzzle during the practice trials – from the easiest 2-disk version to the more complex 5-disk version.

Then, when the participants were tested on their ability to solve the most challenging 6-disk puzzle (to see how effectively they could transfer what they learned from the practice puzzles), the control groups made an average of 2.5 error moves for every correct move vs. just 1 error move for the process-focused groups.

The problem-focused group fared somewhere in the middle. Better than the control groups, but not as good as the process-focused groups.

What does it all mean?

The data yielded a number of interesting findings, but the researchers made two observations that may be of particular interest to musicians and athletes.

1. Unless we are guided, we tend not to focus on or engage in process-level thinking. It’s more natural for us to simply execute a skill, stop, and repeat the skill on "autocorrect" mode until the problem seems to go away. Like playing a passage over and over until it sounds better. Hitting forehand volleys over and over until we get into a groove and everything seems peachy.

Except that in “solving” problems on this implicit level, while we may be able to work ourselves up to a pretty high level of performance in the short term, it involves making more mistakes during the process, and we don’t actually figure out what the solution is, so therefore can’t apply it very effectively to future problems that we might encounter.

2. When, on the other hand, we focus on what we are doing and why we are doing it (whether we are verbalizing these out loud or not), we can not only solve problems more efficiently, but transfer those solution to similar new problems we might encounter later.

All in all, this means less wasted time trying to solve problems, and more time left to work on more interesting, higher-level challenges.

Take action

Try the Tower of Hanoi puzzle again, using the different strategies. How does this change the problem-solving experience?

Then, pick up your instrument (racket, club, etc.) and try thinking out loud while trying to solve a technical problem. How does this change things?

It feels ridiculous at first, but after a little while, talking to yourself doesn’t seem so goofy, right?

A version of this article originally appeared at The Bulletproof Musician.

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