Cognitive flexibility is a subskill that lies near the heart of critical thinking.
Cañas informs us that (concrete) cognitive flexibility (CF) is the human ability to adapt thinking in the face of new and unexpected challenges.
Abstract CF, combined with creativity, is the ability to envision and develop new and different environments for living and working. By environments, I am not talking about physical spaces, which would be related to concrete CF, but environments that would include abstract societal, thinking spaces, and activities. If concrete CF is difficult to develop, abstract CF is more so and largely ignored.
Cognitive flexibility relies on the suppression of some really powerful cognitive biases that we have in society. Social biases effect our thinking in surprisingly powerful ways. The biases that I am referring to are built on heuristics – practical applications of cognitive rules of thumb. Rules of thumb work. And experience strengthens rules of thumb making it difficult to think of other ways to approach the world. In fact, research suggests that the acquisition of expertise solidifies rules of thumb, making cognitive flexibility even more difficult to develop and maintain.
Heuristics have a rational basis. The brain is a conservative organ, meaning that the brain resists activities that will require energy. In addition, most heuristics are based on cognitive shortcuts that reduce the cost of engaging in slower thinking using informed reason. Informed reason needs information. Information is difficult (expensive) to acquire. By that I mean, collecting all of the information individually for every decision that we make is both expensive and impossible. Think, for example, about the enormous cost in purchasing milk if we didn’t have a heuristic that says that any difference in the cost of a liter of milk will be minuscule. Without that heuristic, everyone would need to visit every shop in the city to gather the information necessary to make an informed decision about purchasing milk. Heuristics work.
The problem with cognitive flexibility is that the overapplication of heuristics and biases leads to cognitive inflexibility. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the hallmark statement of cognitive inflexibility.
Tversky and Kahneman have outlined three heuristics that encompass most of the thinking shortcuts that work, don’t work, and cement cognitive inflexibility, the availability heuristic, the representativeness heuristic, and the anchoring/adjustment heuristic.
The availability heuristic is based on the propensity of people to make judgments based on how readily accessible information is. We all know that people will predict that the danger of flying is greater than the danger of walking down the street, even though the chances of being killed in a car or as a pedestrian are much more likely in any given time period (it is estimated that about 3,900 people a day are killed in car accidents worldwide). Because information about airplane crashes is more salient and available, estimates lean that way when it comes to judgments about the dangers involved in these three types of transportation.
When it comes to problem solving, having learned a tried and tested way to solve a problem and having that information available means that the approach to problems that are at all similar will be the same – with possible minor variations. This is the representativeness heuristic. If a problem is at all similar to one encountered before then it makes sense to use the same approach to solve it. Like the saying goes, To a carpenter, the solution to every problem needs a hammer.
Finally, the anchoring/adjustment heuristic means that once we make a judgment or find an adequate solution to a problem, we have an anchor point. When we encounter new problems or situations that require a different solution or a change in thinking, we don’t move very far from the anchor point that we have set in our quest for previous solutions.
These heuristics form the basis of some of the most problematic cognitive biases that result in cognitive inflexibility: confirmation, overconfidence, and familiarity.
Confirmation – attending to and seeking out information that confirms that a person is right in what they are doing.
Overconfidence – the overestimation of the reliability of a person’s own judgments and abilities.
Familiarity – leaning toward information and solutions that a person is familiar and comfortable with.
Add to this the overwhelming drive to conform. Different is both frightening and can be dangerous. If a zebra has stripes that run the wrong way, it won’t take long for a lion to pick it out from the crowd. Even non-conformists tend to non-conform in acceptable styles of non-conformity – pink (or blue, or green) hair, a multitude of body piercings, overly ornamented body art, to name one style of conforming non-conformity.
With all of this pushing us toward cognitive inflexibility, can any of us ever break out of the mold we find ourselves pressed into? We can, and I’ll address that in my next article.
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.