Be Cognitively Flexible, Like the Himba

New study finds that rural Namibians can more easily see alternative solutions.

Posted Nov 02, 2018

Cognitive flexibility is similar to functional fixedness, which refers to an impaired ability to discover a new use for an object. Cognitive flexibility, however, is usually defined as the ability to abandon a previous problem-solving strategy and adopt a new strategy that is more appropriate or more efficient.

Here's a concrete—if somewhat artificial—example. Suppose you look at a touchscreen that displays three different shapes: a square, a circle, and a triangle. You're told that the goal of the game is to make the shapes disappear and be left with a blank screen. 

You're also told that you can make the shapes disappear if you touch the shapes in a particular sequence: first the square, then the circle, the square again, and finally the triangle.  So that's what you do, over and over.

Unbeknownst to you, there's a second, simpler solution to the problem. Simply touch the triangle and the screen goes blank. Will you discover the more efficient solution, or keep using the less efficient solution? Most people keep using the original solution. After all, it works.

For psychologists who study such things, quickly discovering the simpler solution is said to be an indication of cognitive flexibility. Someone who persists with the original solution, never trying something different, is said to be less flexible or "cognitively rigid."

Research psychologists have investigated aspects of cognitive flexibility since the early 1940s, but their studies tested only subjects in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Is the tendency to be cognitively rigid found everywhere? Or might some cultures engender higher levels of cognitive flexibility?

Just this month, a team of American and French psychologists (led by Sarah Pope at Georgia State University) reported the results of a study that compared the cognitive flexibility of 54 American undergraduates and 129 members of the Himba tribe.

James Whatley/WikiMedia Commons (CC 2.0)
Himba Tribe Settlement
Source: James Whatley/WikiMedia Commons (CC 2.0)

Pope and her colleagues asked study participants to perform a touchscreen task similar to the one described earlier. (You can see the actual task and read a detailed description of the procedure at Dr. Pope's web site.)

Nearly 40 percent of the Himba participants demonstrated cognitive flexibility by finding and using the simpler solution, compared to just 6 percent of the Americans.

After many trials, the researchers prompted the participants to "try new things." This had little effect on the Himba participants, but it had a big effect on the Americans. Only 6 percent had used the simpler solution before, but 50 percent did so after hearing the prompt. (A few Himba actually stopped using the more efficient solution after the prompt, presumably because they had been encouraged to do something different.)

As is often the case, it's easier to demonstrate cross-cultural differences than to explain them, but Pope and her colleagues offer two plausible explanations for their findings.

First, the Himba live in an environment that is less predictable and more hazardous than living in the United States. The Himba often face food and water shortages, for example. When things can change suddenly—and for the worse—it's advantageous to have developed a response style that is flexible and innovative.

Second, students who attend school learn many valuable skills, but cognitive flexibility may not be one of them. According to Pope and her co-authors, formal schooling encourages blind repetition of problem-solving strategies. (Think rote learning, duck-and-cover drills, and a teacher giving "the answer.") Students sometimes fail to recognize that a problem can have multiple solutions. The Himba, however, have not received the benefits of formal schooling. As a result, they may show higher levels of cognitive flexibility because they haven't been taught to do things in just one way.

References

Pope, S., Fagot, J., Meguerditchian, A., Washburn, D., & Hopkins, W. (2018). Enhanced cognitive flexibility in the seminomadic Himba. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, DOI: 10.1177/0022022118806581

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