The million-euro question: How do we solve complex problems?
Using data from the German version of the quiz show „Who wants to be a millionaire?“, Professor Carolin Häussler, innovation researcher at the University of Passau, and her former doctoral student, Dr. Sabrina Vieth, have been investigating when people in the digital age resort to which problem-solving strategies.
A lifeline for the 300-euro question? As exasperating as it may be for some contestants in the RTL Group’s popular game show „Wer wird Millionär?“, every now and again one of them will need external help even in the early stages of the game. Do they then actually go ahead and use this option? Or do they avoid doing so for fear of public humiliation?
The study conducted by Professor Carolin Häussler (University of Passau) and Dr. Sabrina Vieth (Coventry University London) took into account precisely such constellations. Based on data from quiz show, the researchers looked at how 398 individuals solved 4,556 problems. For this purpose, they coded 243 episodes of the quiz show in the period from October 2009 to June 2013. As Professor Häussler explains: „We wanted to find out: When do people solve problems themselves, when do they resort to the specialised knowledge of individual experts and when do they decide to use the aggregate knowledge of the audience?“.
Solution strategies in the digital age
What sounds like just some fun study has a serious background. In their analysis, the researchers concentrated on the quiz show for the reason that: „In order to make a clean statistical analysis, we needed to find a setting where people were confronted with problems they hadn’t chosen themselves“. However, the insights gained lead not only to important conclusions with regard to solutions strategies in the digital age where options like search engines or crowd sourcing are readily available. The study also provided significant findings with regard to the innovative power of businesses and society.
The results in a nutshell:
– Social norms that promote an open exchange increase the likelihood of contestants seeking external help.
– High problem complexity motivates the players to solve problems externally. In a culture of open exchange, they will also seek help when confronted with less complex problems.
– When problems are very complex, participants prefer the specialised knowledge of individual experts; when problems are less complex, they ask the audience.
– Older participants seek help less often than young ones. Participants from large cities were more open to external help. The same is true for female contestants when compared with male players.
„In our study we have shown that, to date, far too little attention has been given to social norms as one of the factors,“ says Professor Häussler. In the quiz show, the host Günther Jauch embodies these social components. „When he reminds contestants and lets them know that getting external help is an entirely legitimate option, the contestants actually go ahead and do so.“
Social norms as the key to problem solving
According to the researchers, strong norms of open exchange could encourage a shift in the manner that problems are approached – „towards odds-based decisions in problem solving that acknowledge the merit of internal and external solutions regardless of problem complexity“. The skill of seeking and coordinating external solutions is becoming increasingly important, particularly in an age where challenges are becoming ever more daunting. So when companies want to implement open innovation strategies at an institutional level, it is the managers‘ responsibility to create environments „where positive attitudes to openness and open knowledge exchange can be reinforced,“ write the researchers.
The study „A question worth a million: The expert, the crowd, or myself? An investigation of problem solving“ will be published in the distinguished journal „Research Policy“ in April 2022. This is one of the most prestigious journals in the field of innovation research. The study is already available online at:
About the authors
Professor Carolin Häussler has held the Chair of Organisation, Technology Management and Entrepreneurship and has been acting as liaison officer of the DFG (i.e., the German National Research Foundation) at the University of Passau since 2011. She is also head of project in the DFG Research Training Group 2720: „Digital Platform Ecosystems (DPE)“ at the University of Passau. As a member of the Commission of Experts for Research and Innovation (EFI), she advises the Federal German Government. On 22 February 2022, she is due to present this year’s EFI Report to Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz. She has been bringing researchers from all over the world to Passau with the International Centre for Economics and Business Studies.
Dr. Sabrina Vieth teaches, and conducts research on, entrepreneurship and innovation at Coventry University London. She completed her doctorate at the University of Passau with a focus on open innovation and crowdsourcing. Her research interests revolve around the analysis of problem solving and knowledge exchange, both in the professional and in the educational context.
Contact for scientific information:
Professor Carolin Häussler
Chair of Organisation, Technology Management and Entrepreneurship