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Measures of insight

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Researchers often want to examine the determinants of insight--the event in which the answer to some problem or puzzle suddenly materializes after individuals experience a period in which they cannot solve this conundrum. This process is an important topic in psychology, but researchers have developed few valid and reliable problems to assess insight.

An example of a problem is to identify the idiom that is implied by the letter poPPd. The answer to this question is two peas in a pod. Researchers have shown that several factors can improve insight in individuals, such as the capacity to override negative emotions (e.g., Bolte, Goschke, & Kuhl, 2003) and activation of the right hemisphere (e.g., Bowden & Beeman, 1998)

Insight problems, according to Bowden and Beeman (1998), comprise three characteristics. First, to solve the problem, individuals must redirect their attention and cognition away from the dominant or typical inclinations. In the previous example, they should not merely read the letters poPPd in the usual order. Second, when the solution does arrive, individuals are usually unaware of the intervening processes. That is, the solution seems to materialize unexpectedly. Third, the solution often coincides with a specific subjective experience, called an "aha" moment.

Similarly, according to Hogarth (2001), insight often seems to entail three phases. First, the individual deliberates over some problem. Second, the individual defers the problem for a while, instead directing their attention to some other issue. Third, while occupied with some other issue or consideration, an event triggers the solution.

Categories of insight problems

Insight problems can be divided into classes: mathematical, verbal, and spatial. A typical mathematical problem is: I saw giraffes and ostriches in one cage. How many animals were in this cage if I saw 30 eyes and 44 legs. The answer is 15, because each animal possesses two eyes. The number of legs is irrelevant.

An example of a verbal insight problem is: What is the invention that enables individuals to see through walls? The answer is a window. Finally, a spatial problem might involve creating four equilateral triangles with 6 matchsticks. The answer involves construcing a pyramid.

Miscellaneous items

Initially, when researchers examined the determinants of insight, they presented a miscellany of problems to participants. An example might be "A man who is washing windows on a skyscraper falls off a 20 meter ladder but does not hurt himself& why not?"-and the answer is that he fell from the bottom rung (for some examples and norms, see Ansburg & Dominowski, 2000).

These items, however, present several problems. First, the relative difficulty of these items cannot be estimated readily, unless norms are developed. That is, the relative difficulty cannot be derived from characteristics of the items themselves.

In addition, the validity of these items has not been established definitively. Whether the answers reflect insight or some other processes is difficult to examine convincingly.

Furthermore, common tests of reliability, such as test-retest and parallel forms, are not applicable. For example, the nature of these problems has not been characterized clearly. Hence, developing a parallel test is difficult.

Matchstick items

One class of questions, called matchstick items, circumvents some of these issues (see Knoblich, Ohlsson, Haider, & Rhenius, 1999). In these questions, match sticks are arranged to form incorrect equations with Roman numerals. An example might be IV = III - I. The task is to move one match stick to ensure the equation is correct. In the previous example, the answer would be IV - III = I.

These problems present some benefits. For example, theoretical principles have been developed to characterize the difficulty of these items. Second, empirical findings have verified that answers to these questions do usually reflect insight-rather than, for example, the application of an algorithm.

Remote associates test

Remote associates tests or RATs are also often utilized to assess insight, first promulgated by Mednick (1962;; for norms, see Bowden & Jung-Beeman, 2003). The task is to assess whether three terms, such as goat, top, and pass, all correspond to a fourth term, such as mountain. In some versions, participants are instructed to identify the fourth term. In other versions, the participants are instructed merely to guess as to whether or not the three terms do indeed correspond to a fourth term (e.g., Bolte, Goschke, & Kuhl, 2003).

Previous research does indeed show that performance on RAT items does coincide with performance on other insight problems (e.g., Ansburg, 2000;; see also Daialey, 1978). These findings imply that RAT problems do reflect insight. Furthermore, performance on these problems coincides with self ratings of insight during daily life (for a review of these benefits, see MacGregor & Cunningham, 2008). Indeed, many studies have utilized this technique to examine insight (e.g., Bowers, Regehr, Balthazard, & Parker, 1990;; Smith & Blankenship, 1991).

Nevertheless, in contrast to matchstick items, no theoretical principles have been developed to ascertain the difficulty of items from the characteristics of these questions. Norms need to be developed to characterize the difficulty of items. Fortunately, such norms were developed by Mednick and Mednick (1967).

Typical items

Some of the simple items include:

Some of the difficult items include:

Rebus problems

Another set of items that can be used to assess insight are rebus problems (see MacGregor & Cunningham, 2008). Specifically, participants must form a common idiom from a series of verbal and visual clues. An example might be "you just me" in which the answer is "just between you and me".

Rebus problems tend to coincide with the characteristic properties of insight problems. Indeed, to solve the problem, individuals must inhibit dominant inclinations. For example, they might need to disregard the usual syntax of sentences. Alternatively, they should override the tendency to disregard the style or font to derive meaning. For example, the question PUNISHMENT, in which the answer is capital punishment, violates this principle.

Difficulty of items

The difficulty of rebus problems can potentially be derived from the number of dimensions in which the sentence needs to be restructured to uncover the solution. To illustrate, to solve the problem SOMething, in which the answer is "the start of something big", demands individuals attend to two facets: the spatial relationship and the style or font. In contrast, to solve the problem in which the word "exit" is placed above the word "leg"-where the answer is "to go out on a limb", requires individuals attend to three facets: the synonymous relationship between exit and go out, the spatial relationship to imply "on", and the subordinate relationship between leg and limb. Indeed, the number of facets or principles that need to be considered is called the restructuring index. For most problems, this index ranges from 1 to 4.

MacGregor and Cunningham (2008) did indeed validate this index. That is, participants were typically less able to answer questions with an elevated index, although some discrepancies were observed.

Types of problems

Almost 20 facets or principles, each of which requires participants to relinquish a conventional inclination, have been differentiated (MacGregor & Cunningham, 2008). For example, for a few problems, a sequence of letters needs to be interpreted as words, such as the problem in which iiii is presented above ooo, and the answer is circles under the eyes. Second, many of the problems converted spatial relations, such as before, under, through, and beside, to word, such as the problem RIGHT your iiiis, in which the answer is right before your eyes.


MacGregor and Cunningham (2008) showed that individuals who answer rebus problems report elevated levels of insight in daily life. Furthermore, performance on these problems also correlates with the capacity to solve items on the remote associates test. Nevertheless, this validation is only preliminary, and further research is required.

Finally, performance on these problems was not correlated significantly with the capacity to solve verbal analogies, which vindicates discriminant validity. Verbal analogies include "Water is to steam as fire is to...smoke, wood, arson, or chimney?"

Self ratings of insight

In some studies, rather than present specific problems, participants are asked to evaluate the extent to which they experience insight during their daily life. In particular, the concept of insight in science and invention is described, but the prevalence of insight in daily life is highlighted. That is, after struggling with a problem, the answer might materialize suddenly, coinciding with an "Aha" experience. Finally, participants are asked to rate the extent to which they are insightful.

Literature on insight

History of insight

Many renowned instances of insight have been reported. Archimedes experienced a celebrated flash of insight. According to legend, he had previously pondered the source of water displacement. Upon entering the bath one day, an insight suddenly emerged. He realized, and then later verified, that a body immersed in a fluid is subject to an upward force that is equal in magnitude to the weight of fluid this subject displaces (see Ohlsson, 1992). Upon his sudden revelation, he supposedly ran from the bath naked, shouting Eureka Eureka. This insight emerged even though he was not deliberately analyzing the problem.

Neuropsychological underpinnings to insight

In general, solutions to insight problems tend to coincide with increased activation of the right hemisphere, especially in the anterior temporal lobe, which is close to the right ear (see Bowden & Beeman, 2003;; Bowden, Beeman, Fleck, & Kounios, 2005). This region may be involved in the integration of information sources that are remotely associated with one another.

In addition, over a second before the insight, alpha band activity was prominent, especially over the right occipital lobe, but then vanished as the insight emerged. Conceivably, at this time, activation of these neural regions dissipates to preclude visual distraction and curb anxiety. Subtle signals are more likely to be detected and amplified, ultimately evolving to facilitate the insight.

The generic parts technique

Many insight problems are difficult to solve because participants overlook uncommon uses of objects, called functional fixedness. To illustrate, consider the two ring problem, described by McCaffrey (2012). In this problem, participants must, somehow, fasten together two steel rings. They can use only a wax candle, a match, and a cube of steel to fulfill this goal. To solve this problem, participants need to realize the wax candle does not need to be used as a candle. Instead, the steel cube can be used to scrape the wax off the string. The string can then be used to fasten the rings together.

Interestingly, McCaffrey (2012) devised a technique that can be applied to increase the likelihood that participants overcome functional fixedness and, therefore, solve many of these insight problems. The technique is called the generic parts technique. First, participants are encouraged to decompose each object into its constituent parts. A candle, for example, can be decomposed into two parts: the wick and the wax. Second, participants specify the material as well as the shape and size of each part. They might, for example, describe the wick as composed of a string and is long and fibrous. The wax, in contrast, is composed of lipids and is cylindrical. As attention shifts to these features, such as long and fibrous or cylindrical, participants become more attuned to other uses of these objects.

To assess this possibility, some participants were instructed to practice this technique for 20 minutes. In the control group, participants merely completed a word association task. Next, they received a series of insight problems, each of which could be solved only if participants overcome functional fixedness. The generic parts technique did indeed enhance performance on these insight problems.


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Last Update: 6/20/2016