Problem-Solving Appraisal

Problem-solving appraisal refers to a person’s self-appraisal of his or her problem-solving abilities and attitudes (i.e., his or her self-evaluated capacity to resolve problems). Ever since John Dewey’s influential 1933 publication of How We Think, there has been a strong focus in psychology on how people cope with their daily life problems and major life events. Much of the earliest research examined laboratory problems involving water jars and strings. More recent research has also examined how people grapple with stressful personal problems, such as relationship and career problems. Not surprisingly, applied problem solving that focuses on real-life personal problems has received a great deal of attention in counseling psychology. In 1965, John Krumboltz proclaimed that the central reason for the existence of the counseling profession was because clients needed professional assistance with problems that they were unable to resolve on their own. More than 120 studies have been conducted on problem-solving appraisal using the Problem Solving Inventory (PSI). This entry provides a brief history of psychological research on problem solving and explains how that has led to a focus on the construct of problem-solving appraisal. Then this article summarizes what is known about the influence of problem-solving appraisal on psychosocial adjustment, physical health, coping, and educational and career-related issues, as well as other implications.

Historical Overview of Applied Problem Solving

The earliest applied problem-solving research focused on discreet thought processes, such as sensitivity to problems, causal thinking, and the generation of alternatives. Early models of problem solving posited a stage-sequential process, and they assumed that problem solvers would rationally progress through stages such as identifying the problem, generating alternatives, and making decisions. More recently, however, psychologists have shifted their attention to higher-order or metacognitve variables that affect how and whether a person will even attempt to solve a particular problem.

People respond to personal problems in different ways. Some people tend to attack the source of the problem. Others become very anxious and try to regulate their negative emotions associated with the stress of a problem rather than to resolve the problem itself. Some people tend to problem solve in a very systematic and persistent fashion, while others tend to make sporadic and inconsistent attempts to resolve problems. In short, some people bring a great deal of resources to resolving their problems, but others have significant problem-solving deficits. An important individual difference that influences applied problem-solving behavior is a person’s problem-solving appraisal.

The PSI is the most widely used measure of problem-solving appraisal. The PSI consists of 35 items, each having 6 possible responses that vary from 1 = strongly agree to 6 = strongly disagree. The instrument provides measures of (a) Problem-Solving Confidence, defined as one’s beliefs in his or her problem-solving abilities; (b) Approach-Avoidance Style, defined as one’s general tendency to approach or avoid different problem-solving activities; and (c) Personal Control, defined as one’s beliefs in his or her emotional and behavioral control while solving problems. An extensive body of empirical research supports the construct, convergent, and discriminant validity of the PSI across a range of populations and cultures.

Psychosocial Adjustment

In the past 25 years, a broad range of studies have suggested that problem-solving appraisal is associated with general psychological and social adjustment, depression, hopelessness and suicide potential, anxiety and worry, alcohol use and abuse, eating disorders, childhood adjustment, and childhood trauma. This entry focuses on the first four areas.

General Psychological and Social Adjustment

Individuals who have a negative (as opposed to a positive) problem-solving appraisal tend to be less well adjusted psychologically, to have more personal problems, and to experience more difficulty establishing a personal identity separate from their parents. In addition, they have fewer social skills and experience more social distress. There appears to be a dysfunctional pattern in which avoiding their problems leads to lower problem-solving confidence, and subsequently, lower psychological adjustment. The more positively individuals appraise their problem solving, the higher their levels of psychological and social adjustment.


A positive problem-solving appraisal is associated with lower levels of depression. Individuals’ negative appraisal of their problem-solving talents is strongly predictive of depression for those experiencing high levels of stress, but not for those experiencing low levels of stress. Thus, people with a negative problem-solving appraisal are at a higher risk of depression when they are under high stress. Having a positive assessment of their problem-solving ability provides individuals with some protection against depression when they are confronted with high levels of stress.

Hopelessness and Suicidality

A negative problem-solving appraisal is associated with feelings of hopelessness and suicidal ideation. A person’s problem-solving confidence, in particular, is a relatively strong predictor of his or her feelings of hopelessness. Individuals with a negative (as opposed to positive) problem-solving appraisal who are under high levels of stress tend to experience higher levels of hopelessness. Thus, problem-solving appraisal is a consistent predictor of hopelessness and suicidality.

Anxiety and Worry

People with a negative appraisal of their problem-solving abilities tend to experience higher levels of anxiety in general, and especially when under stress. In particular, problem-solving confidence and a sense of personal control were most strongly associated with both anxiety and worrying.

Physical Health

Problem-solving appraisal is associated with a range of physical health indexes including: (a) physical health complaints and health promotion, (b) physical health complications, and (c) physical limitations.

Problem-solving appraisal is related to health expectancies, specific health complaints (e.g., chronic pain and cardiovascular problems), and health problems in general. People with a negative (as opposed to a positive) appraisal of their problem-solving skills report more health complaints, lower health expectancies, and fewer health promotion behaviors. An individual’s feelings of personal control strongly relate to his or her physical health complaints. There is even some evidence that problem-solving appraisal demonstrated greater sensitivity than two standard neuropsychological problem-solving measures in (a) differentiating traumatic brain injured (TBI) patients from uninjured groups, (b) detecting treatment changes in the TBI patients’ problem solving, and (c) predicting independence and integration in the community of TBI patients. In short, problem-solving appraisal is a useful predictor of self-reported health and behavioral health indicators.


Problem-solving appraisal is related to cognitive and affective coping activities when dealing with stressful life problems. Specifically, there is a consistent association between a positive problem-solving appraisal and problem-focused coping (i.e., approaching and attempting to alter the cause of a stressful problem). A negative appraisal is more strongly related to task-inhibiting and emotion-focused self-statements and a tendency to feel powerless when dealing with interpersonal problems. In addition, problem-solving confidence and the approach-avoidance style appear to be the strongest contributors to reported problem-focused coping activities. A sense of personal control was particularly related to self-reported disengaging, denial, and emotion-focused coping.

People’s strategies for seeking and using helping resources are also related to their appraisal of their problem-solving skills. A positive (as opposed to negative) problem-solving appraisal is associated with more awareness of the availability of helping resources, higher rates of utilization, and more satisfaction with those resources. A more positive problem-solving appraisal also predicts more positive training experiences (e.g., problem-solving training) and better personal and career counseling outcomes. Thus, problem-solving appraisal is strongly associated with various coping activities and is predictive of associated cognitive and affective coping operations as well as outcomes of utilizing various helping resources.

Educational and Vocational Issues

Individuals’ appraisal of their problem-solving abilities is related to the presence of educational and vocational issues. Specifically, problem-solving appraisal is related to test anxiety, test irrelevant thinking, study skills in at-risk students, education level, and age, but not to measures of intelligence and academic aptitude. Consistent with several vocational theories (particularly maturity models), problem-solving appraisal is related to vocational identity, career decision-making variables (e.g., decision-making strategies), career planning (e.g., level of knowledge and certainty, multiple career roles for women), personality consistency, and differentiation of some types of career-undecided students. For example, people with a negative (as opposed to positive) appraisal of their problem-solving skills report lower levels of vocational identity, less certainty in their decisions about a career, less knowledge about career choices, and more dependent and intuitive decision-making strategies. More specifically, approaching problems is associated with rational decision-making and dependent decisional strategies; problem-solving confidence is related to rational and intuitive decision making; and lack of personal control is related to a need for more information for making career decisions. Thus, problem-solving appraisal is consistently and strongly associated with both career planning and decision making.


People’s appraisal of their problem-solving ability is related to a wide range of psychological adjustment and physical health indexes, to the approach they use in coping with stressful problems, and to their resolution of educational and vocational issues. There is a robust relationship between problem-solving appraisal and measures of psychological adjustment (e.g., depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation). Generally speaking, people who have a more positive appraisal of their problem-solving skills are more likely to report a positive self-concept, higher levels of self-efficacy, more social support, and lower levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, social uneasiness, and irrational beliefs. They report positive health expectancies and fewer health com-plaints and problems. They use problem-focused strategies to cope with stressful events and have a greater awareness, utilization, and satisfaction of coping resources. They use rational career decision-making styles, have a more well-developed vocational identity, possess greater knowledge and certainty in career planning, and experience less career indecision.

In essence, people’s appraisal of their problem-solving capability is useful for understanding a broad range of human behavior, and in many (but not all) cases problem-solving appraisal appears to overlap with actual problem-solving skills. That is, based on countless problem-solving trials, people’s appraisal of their problem-solving capabilities is often consistent with their actual performance in problem solving. Thus, how people evaluate their problem-solving capabilities is in general consistent with the implementation of their problem-solving skills across a range of stressful personal problems. However, there are some exceptions. For instance, some people overestimate or underestimate their problem-solving abilities for a variety of reasons, resulting in a mismatch between their problem-solving appraisal and performance. There may be complex interactions between a person’s appraisal of his or her problem-solving skills and personality characteristics (e.g., sociopathic personality styles) and life situation (incarcerated adults, substance abuse). Thus, problem-solving appraisal should not be considered as synonymous with problem-solving skills.

Considerably more research has chosen to examine problem-solving appraisal, rather than other applied problem-solving inventories, in racial/ethnic minority groups in the United States and other countries (e.g., Canada, China, England, Italy, Jordan, South Africa, Taiwan, and Turkey). Nonetheless, what is known about problem-solving appraisal is based on primarily White U.S. samples. More information is needed before researchers can be sure they understand the similarities and differences in real-life problem solving across cultures.

Knowing how people appraise their problem-solving capabilities is clearly useful in understanding human psychological, physical, and vocational adjustments. In counseling, understanding how clients appraise their problem-solving capabilities can help to assess clients’ strengths as well as diagnose weaknesses relative to their presenting problems, or identify students at risk. Problem-solving appraisal provides a useful perspective for promoting an understanding of clients’ problem-solving style and useful information in developing successful interventions to help clients resolve troublesome problems. Given that problem-solving appraisal is learned after countless trials, it also implies that people’s self-appraisal of their problem-solving skills is amenable to change. There are many promising possibilities for applied interventions to enhance problem-solving appraisal and ability to cope with stressful life events, and thereby to enhance people’s life satisfaction and well-being.


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