Research on Problem Solving Skills: (How) Do People Really "Think Outside the Box"?

Blog » Research on Problem Solving Skills: (How) Do People Really "Think Outside the Box"?

Posted on 25 May 2013 01:57

Research conducted and written by : Sunny Aggarwal , Eli Hoch , Minchang Kang , Michael Safdieh , Alexander Swyst
May 24, 2013


Our study focuses on the responsive problem solving tactics that various test subjects with no relation to major age or year had with a mind boggling challenge: opening a wine bottle. We gave them many tools to use when in reality only one of the tools were needed but we did not care about this, just the process that they went through. We found that people had many different techniques and methods on how to get the bottle with some being more creative then others and some being more effective than others. Although our sample size was too small to make any conclusive results we found some interesting trends that could be proven and expanded upon in future experiments. The experiment was a good starting point for anyone who is interested in furthering the results.


Creativity and critical thinking skills can be thought of as the foundation upon which an engineer’s career is built upon. Engineers must be able to calculate a given issue, and develop innovative solutions with the resources available. For instance, a civil engineer might have to develop a bridge to span a large gorge while keeping a project within certain budgetary guidelines. While a problem might appear relatively simple and straightforward with ample resources, the true test of a person’s problem-solving abilities is their adeptness in finding a solution when resources are strained.

But how do engineers approach a puzzle with a very unapparent solution; how do their methods differ? Our study sought to find the answer to this question: in the end our study was able to identify some visible differences between the processes of engineers.


In order to test subjects’ ingenuity and problem-solving abilities, a test was necessary to measure these traits. For our purposes, we presented subjects with a wine bottle, within which a cork had been pushed through until it was stuck within the body of the bottle. The easiest and most elegant solution to remove the cork was in fact to take the cloth napkin, insert it into the bottle, guide the cork onto the napkin, and then remove the cork using leverage from the napkin. However, the students were also given the following common tools to use in the task:

Small Bucket of Water Pen String Fork Hanger Hammer Corkscrew Water Bucket Cloth
Screwdriver Pen Cap Pocketknife Chap stick Knife Paperclip Pencil Rubber band Finger

Test subjects were students taken from the City College of New York and participated with the incentive of receiving free pizza upon completion of the puzzle. Ten subjects were ultimately analyzed; they included students from the following majors: 1 civil engineering, 3 environmental engineering, 3 biomedical engineering, 2 biology, and 1 sociology.

Subjects were given ten minutes to solve the puzzle. During testing, both subject groups were recorded using a video camera. After the fact, this footage was used to make observations about the test subjects’ methods, in addition to whether or not they were able to solve the puzzle.


Students employed a wide range of tactics and methodologies ranging from the more basic, to the more inventive. Although ultimately, no student was successful in arriving at the solution, some came very close, or otherwise developed interesting alternative methods.

Moves and Methods


In most cases, the first move employed by the test subjects (eight out of ten) was to turn the bottle upside down. This seems to serve a couple of purposes: 1. It rules out the most obvious solution to the problem at hand: that the cork can simply fall out of the bottle; 2. It set the stage for a subsequent move, which in most cases was the insertion of an object that could pierce the cork or reposition it (this is discussed in the next paragraph). When flipping the bottle upside down was not the first move made, it often served purpose number two.

One subject, a 19-year-old female sociology student made extensive use of flipping the bottle upside down, repeatedly inserting tools in the bottle whilst it was inverted in an effort to see if anything would change. Another student, a 19-year-old biology-pre med major first attempted to forcibly position or remove the cork by shaking the bottle before moving on to a tool.

Long/Poking Tools

One of the most commonly used techniques was to take a long, thin object that could fit through the mouth of the bottle and, once the object was inserted, attempt to pierce the cork, or guide/pull the cork into the neck of the bottle. As explained before, this often followed the inversion of the bottle. Attempts such as these were largely unsuccessful in achieving any type of guidance for the cork. Interestingly enough, however, test subjects also often returned to this method time and again despite their previous experiences. It seemed to be the “go-to” when subject became stuck or frustrated. Only one subject, a 26-year-old environmental engineering junior, refrained from trying to use a long instrument to remove or stab the cork.


A variation of the above use of tools existed where the subject would fill the bottle with water to bring the cork to the top of the neck, “improving” the ease of stabbing/guiding with a knife or bent hanger (respectively).


One of the more advanced techniques employed was the use of the hanger, bent or unbent, to try and hook the cork and remove it from the neck.

Below is a table detailing the frequency of use each tool received.

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Water Hanger / String Corkscrew / Screwdriver Pocket Knife / Pencil / Knife Pen / Fork Hammer Empty Water Bucket / Pen Cap / Chapstick / Paperclip / Cloth / Rubberband / Finger

Case Studies:

Although most participants did not achieve much, there were a few interesting cases.

26-Year-Old Environmental Engineering Junior:

This test subject used the string more or less as her sole tool. In her attempt, she used the string to pull out the cork by wedging the cork between the string and the neck of the bottle. Although she had the right idea, the string was insufficient to remove the cork. She came the closest to solving the problem of any test subject. Her process is detailed below.

1. Inserts string, guiding with pen.

2. Inverts bottle and shakes to position the cork.

3. Positions cork with pen, into place to remove with string.

4. Continues to position the cork with the above-mentioned tools.

5. Removes string and ties rubber band to string.

6. Places string with rubber band in bottle, inverts bottle, gets a grip on the cork and pulls, but the string rips.

7. Repeats steps 4-6.

8. She starts to pull again.

9. Takes the corkscrew, twists the string around the corkscrew, and pulls the corkscrew as a handle, but the string rips once again.

10. She then tries her method a third time but time runs out.

32-years-old Environmental Engineering Senior:

One of the more inventive subjects seemed to have two methodologies. His first methodology was to impale the cork like previous subjects. However, his other methodology was to use the cloth while shaking the bottle to get the cork as high as it could go. After this, he would poke at it. It seems as though he was using the force of water suctioned into the bottle to force the cork up if it was shaken hard enough. His method is detailed below.

1. Places bottle upside down to see what happens.

2. Fills bottle with water and pokes with pencil.

3. Pours more water into bottle and pokes with pencil

4. Pours some water back and pokes with screwdriver, pencil, and corkscrew.

5. Pours more water into bottle and pokes with pencil.

6. Takes cloth , inverts bottle, and with the bottle full of water tries to shake the cork out.

7. Pokes with pencil.

8. Once again shakes bottle with water, pokes cork.

9. Shakes bottle again and pours a little more water in.

10. Ties cloth around bottle neck with rubberband and shakes vigorously.

11. Takes apart paperclip and tries to poke cork.

12. Again takes cloth and bottle and shakes it.

13. Tries the paper clip again.

14. Pours water to the tippy top and tries again to poke with paperclip.

15. Tries to poke with paperclip and pencil again.

16. Pours out bottle completely and tries paperclip again.

17. Tries to stick his own finger in the bottle.//

19-Year-Old Sociology Freshman

This subject is notable for her unique method—she seemed to not have any recognizable process. Instead, she simply stuck tools into the bottle to see if anything would happen. She did this repeatedly and tried to give up after the first minute.


It seems as though most subjects followed a general path whereby they progressed from the most obvious and simple ideas to the more complex and effective (in some cases). As explained earlier, in eight out of ten cases, the first move subjects made was to invert the bottle and see if the cork would simply fall out. Additionally, the most popular technique was to use a long or pointed instrument to try and stick or guide the cork out of the bottle. Given the simplicity of this technique, it is no surprise that it was the most common.

With this idea of progressing from the simplest techniques to the most complex in mind, it is also no surprise that three of the six subjects that used water compounded their initial attempts of using long/pointed instruments by adding water to raise the cork, thus giving easier access to the goal.

The data also seems to show that engineers may be more prone to following the method of deductive reasoning where subjects began with a general method and then revised it. For instance, the subject with the least success was a sociology major, perhaps unused to the type of creative or critical thinking required to solve the puzzle. Following this line of thought, engineers were the only ones to use the string to some useful extent: a biomedical engineer attempted to use string and a hanger to fish out the cork and more notably, the environmental engineer detailed above was almost able to remove the cork, but the string broke. Also, engineers tended to use more tools on average than non-engineers (5.7 compared to 5.3), although this really is inconclusive given the small sample size.


Although the study performed did yield some interesting results, the sample size of our experiment was too small to gather enough data. As such, the above results are inconclusive and are not explicitly indicative of the methods by which engineers and non-engineers solve problems requiring critical thinking. Additionally, because of the limited amount of data there is really no way to develop a conclusive, unifying theory. This should be considered no more than a preliminary run for a possibly greater study.

Because of the nascency of the study, there are many issues that need to be resolved. First of all, in the study, subjects were not isolated during testing; subjects would often question those running the tests or peek at the other subject in the room for guidance. The social setting might also have pressured subjects from experimenting with more unique ideas. This lack of isolation of subjects may have had a huge impact on subjects’ performance, but it cannot be certain how much; as such, in the future, these variables must be eliminated.

Another major issue was unequal distribution of materials between subjects. For instance, while one subject might have had a long screwdriver, the other in the room did not. This eventually resulted in trading materials back and forth in more than one instance. And as far as materials go, it seems that perhaps the napkins were not adequately presented as tools (given subjects only used them as placemats or towels) and the string was insufficiently strong.

Finally, the ten minute limit put in place for the sake of a time schedule may be limiting to subjects’ creativity. A time limit may cause subjects to rush without thinking out their plans of action. It also might be a good idea to have students review the footage of them solving the puzzle and have them articulate their thought process, in order to give greater insight into their critical thinking methods.

But despite the apparent shortcomings of the experiment, some interesting questions have been brought up that at least seem of interest. Are engineers more accomplished at solving mentally taxing problems? Is it because they employ a type of deductive reasoning, working from the simplest solutions to the most complex—systematically? And why are engineers better at this type of thinking—are these types of thinkers simply drawn to the career path? All these questions deserve further investigation, hopefully with a more thought-out and better executed follow-up.

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