Sarah Pope drives to work every day. It takes the cognitive neuroscientist 10 minutes to get to her lab at the University of Texas at Austin, and 10 minutes to get back home. She thought it was the fastest route, until one day a roadblock forced her to take a back road, which cut her commute time in half.
Why didn't she try the better route earlier? She says it's an example of a tendency to stick to the familiar way of solving a problem. Psychologists call it "cognitive set." Psychologists who are interested in the opposite kind of mindset – flexible thinking – have confirmed this bias toward the familiar in experiment after experiment.
But a study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology earlier this year challenges this dogma by testing the flexible thinking of non-Western cultures – in this case, the semi-nomadic Himba people of Namibia.
The researchers found that when you assign a simple problem to the Himba and to a group of Westerners, the Himba are more cognitively flexible.
"These are exciting results," says Thea Ionescu, a developmental psychologist at Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania who was not involved in the study. "There has been this implicit assumption that if we study Westerners, we study humankind," says Ionescu. "This study suggests that's not necessarily the case."
Flexible thinking is a fuzzy capacity for psychologists to describe and measure. But they generally think of it as our ability to incorporate past knowledge and the present context and add a bit of improvisational magic to solve problems well and quickly.
Now you don't always need to be flexible. Let's say your day-to-day existence is pretty much the same. "If you're in an environment that is very predictable, the best solution is often the one that's always worked," says Pope.
In a more dynamic environment, where circumstances can change at the drop of a dime, there can be a benefit to breaking out of a rut and trying something new. But our bias towards the familiar can make it difficult to step out of our comfort zone.
To study the way we roll, psychologists have designed experiments that train participants to solve a problem one way, and then slip in the option of switching to a much faster method. Overwhelmingly, according to Pope, people tend not to take the shortcut. "They continue with the learned approach, despite its inefficiency."
Pope says that various versions of these tests have reached a similar conclusion, suggesting to the psychological community that "cognitive set" is an innate part of being human.
But Pope and Ionescu argue that conclusion is premature, because these studies have only considered WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) humans.
"WEIRD humans live in WEIRD environments at least evolutionarily speaking," says Pope. The fundamental workings of our minds were shaped thousands of years ago in environments vastly different than our present day surroundings. "Only looking at Westerners limits the scope of our understanding of human cognition," says Pope.
To investigate cognitive flexibility in a non-WEIRD population, Pope traveled to Namibia to meet the Himba people. They live semi-nomadic lives in the remote deserts of northern Namibia.
"They are one of the few remaining remote cultures that actively resist Western influence," says Pope. Traditional Himba have virtually no formal education, and "live in a much less predictable environment than Westerners," says Pope.
To compare cognitive flexibility across such vastly different cultures, Pope devised a simple test that didn't require language or math. A test subject looks at a touchscreen. A series of squares appear. The goal is to make them vanish.
With prompts, the subject learns that touching the squares in the order in which they appeared will make them disappear. Then a new batch of squares pop up, and the test subject starts over again.
But after a while, a triangle appears as well. You could stick to the strategy that worked before — touching the squares in a certain sequence to make them go away. But if you try something different — just touching the triangle — you'll achieve the goal faster: All the squares will vanish.
Pope found that fewer than 10 percent of Western subjects changed strategies unprompted. Most continued with the method they'd been taught, even though it's far less efficient.
By contrast, Himba participants chose the direct strategy approximately 40 percent of the time. In essence, they saw the triangle and figured, hey, why not try touching that?
According to Pope, these results suggest that Himba were more cognitively flexible. They were better able to switch away from a learned rule and use a shortcut when the opportunity presented itself.
But is this difference due to innate differences in problem solving between the groups? Or just by the fact that different groups can have different ideas of what counts as a problem or a solution?
To distinguish between these possibilities, Pope added a twist. Halfway through the trial, all 225 participants were nudged with the prompt: "Don't be afraid to try new things."
Upon hearing this, about 50 percent of Westerners tried the direct solution method, while the percentage of Himba who went for the triangle – about 40 – percent remained unchanged. Pope says this shows that the Westerners had the same ability to solve problems as the Himba – it's just that they weren't flexible in their thinking about the problem itself and possible solutions.
"I think Westerners are very limited in how they approach problems," says Pope. "Obviously this is just one task and has to be replicated with other measures, but I think this does lay a foundation for understanding why Westerners are more focused on the familiar — something that is sufficient but not efficient."
"Westerners would afterward say things like 'Oh, I didn't think I could do that' whereas the Himba seemed much more open to trying alternative solutions," says Pope.
According to Pope this study suggests cognitive set may be less ingrained in some cultures than others than previously thought. She has research plans to figure out why.
"One explanation may lie in education," says Pope. Formal education can train the mind to view problems in a certain kind of way. Without formal education, Himba may be freer to try different approaches. Understanding the relationship between education and creative problem solving could help resolve this question.
Another possibility is that different environments mold different ways of thinking. Lifestyles that are less predictable may require greater cognitive flexibility to survive.
"When you don't know where your food is going to come from when you wake up, it's important to be able to switch strategies if something isn't working," says Pope.
Pope says that she was struck by the willingness of the Himba "to uproot their entire life at the drop of a hat," when water became scarce at a site they were living, or there was no more grass for their herds to eat."
In their world, there's less permanency, "which makes switching strategies an accepted part of their life."
Our predictable Western lifestyles clearly offer benefits but they may come at the cost of less flexible thinking.