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When insight just won’t come: The failure of visual cues in the nine-dot problem.

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article


Associated organisational unit

Journal publication date2001
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Series a Human Experimental Psychology
Volume54 A
Number of pages17
Original languageEnglish


The nine-dot problem is a classic in the field of human problem solving. Cognitive accounts of the problem's difficulty have been criticized on the grounds that the experimental methods on which they rely for support involve a qualitative change to the task requirements of the problem. The three experiments reported here utilize visual and visual-procedural hints to examine the notion that its difficulty is rooted in a mismatch between problem shape and solution shape. Experiment 1 demonstrated that a perceptual cue to the shape of the solution in the form of shading gave rise to only minimal improvements in performance; an additional hint about the relevance of the shading gave rise to modest, but not statistically significant, improvements. Experiment 2 replicated these findings against an additional control condition in which a solely verbal hint to violate the perceptual boundary of the problem shape was given. Furthermore, when both the verbal and visual hints were provided, performance improved only slightly. Experiment 3 provided participants with experience in producing the shape of the correct solution in problem variants closely related to the nine-dot problem. Performance on the transfer task, the basic nine-dot problem, remained at floor, however. These data suggest that visual constraint relaxation is unlikely to be the sole process by which the insight required to find a solution is achieved. The results are interpreted in terms of a previously proposed computational model of performance.

Bibliographic note

Original manuscript received 8 October 1999 Accepted revision received 25 July 2000 The final, definitive version of this article has been published in the Journal, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 54A (3), 2001, © Informa Plc