Building Cognitive Flexibility
Photo by Zoë Reeve / Unsplash

Building Cognitive Flexibility


You're moving plastic chairs one by one into the conference room. Suddenly, you have a better idea. You can speed up the process if you stack and carry multiple chairs at once.

This is a basic example of cognitive flexibility. You replaced one solution with a more efficient one. Had you stuck to your original method, you would be demonstrating cognitive rigidity. Cognitive rigidity is an unwillingness to find a new solution to a problem.

If you grew up in a different country, do you think your creative problem solving skills would be better or worse?

Experience Affects Cognitive Flexibility

In 2018, a group of psychologists led by cognitive neuroscientist Sarah Pope compared the cognitive flexibility of 54 American undergraduates and 129 members of the Himba tribe in Namibia.

The Himba outperformed the American students: nearly 40% of the Himba discovered an easier solution compared to just 6% of the Americans.

When researchers later prompted participants to “try new things,” 50% of the American students found a simpler answer, although it had little effect on the the Himba.

Why might this be?

Researchers offered two explanations:

1. Environment

The Himba live in a much less predictable and more hazardous environment than the American students, and routinely have to come up with innovative solutions to issues like food and water shortages.

2. Education

School curricula in the U.S. may encourage cognitive rigidity by overemphasizing scenarios where there is a single right answer, or blind repetition of a problem-solving process. Lacking formal education, the Himba are more adept at finding alternative solutions from the start.

Both explanations have the same implication: Cognitive flexibility is like a muscle that you can strengthen. The more you practice creative problem solving, the more flexible your thinking becomes. You might even come up with better ways to move those stacks of chairs.