Rational Simplification and Rigidity in Human Planning

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Planning underpins the impressive flexibility of goal-directed behavior. However, even when planning, people can display surprising rigidity in how they think about problems (e.g., “functional fixedness”) that lead them astray. How can our capacity for behavioral flexibility be reconciled with our susceptibility to conceptual inflexibility? We propose that these tendencies reflect avoidance of two cognitive costs: the cost of representing task details and the cost of switching between representations. To test this hypothesis, we developed a novel paradigm that affords participants opportunities to choose different families of simplified representations to plan. In two preregistered, online studies (Ns = 377 and 294 adults), we found that participants’ optimal behavior, suboptimal behavior, and reaction time were explained by a computational model that formalized people’s avoidance of representational complexity and switching. These results demonstrate how the selection of simplified, rigid representations leads to the otherwise puzzling combination of flexibility and inflexibility observed in problem solving.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1281-1292
Number of pages12
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Psychology


  • causal reasoning
  • functional fixedness
  • open data
  • open materials
  • planning
  • preregistered
  • problem solving
  • task switching


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