Aiding the search: Examining individual differences in multiply-constrained problem solving

Derek M. Ellis, Gene Brewer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Understanding and resolving complex problems is of vital importance in daily life. Problems can be defined by the limitations they place on the problem solver. Multiply-constrained problems are traditionally examined with the compound remote associates task (CRAT). Performance on the CRAT is partially dependent on an individual's working memory capacity (WMC). These findings suggest that executive processes are critical for problem solving and that there are reliable individual differences in multiply-constrained problem solving abilities. The goals of the current study are to replicate and further elucidate the relation between WMC and CRAT performance. To achieve these goals, we manipulated preexposure to CRAT solutions and measured WMC with complex-span tasks. In Experiment 1, we report evidence that preexposure to CRAT solutions improved problem solving accuracy, WMC was correlated with problem solving accuracy, and that WMC did not moderate the effect of preexposure on problem solving accuracy. In Experiment 2, we preexposed participants to correct and incorrect solutions. We replicated Experiment 1 and found that WMC moderates the effect of exposure to CRAT solutions such that high WMC participants benefit more from preexposure to correct solutions than low WMC (although low WMC participants have preexposure benefits as well). Broadly, these results are consistent with theories of working memory and problem solving that suggest a mediating role of attention control processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)21-33
Number of pages13
JournalConsciousness and Cognition
StatePublished - Jul 2018


  • Compound remote associates
  • Individual differences
  • Multiply-constrained problem solving
  • Problem solving
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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