Top 10 Future Skills: Cognitive Flexibility

Just as we train our body, our brain requires us to have some exercises in place for keeping it agile. In this article we will cover cognitive flexibility and the phenomena that allow us to acquire knowledge and the factors that hinder us from doing so. According to the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report, cognitive flexibility is amongst the top 10 skills which will help you stay competitive in the workforce of 2020. This ability is also referred to as “shifting”, and it describes switching between different mental sets, tasks, or strategies.

The Cognitive Flexibility Theory

The Cognitive Flexibility Theory, introduced by Spiro, Feltovich, and Coulson, tries to determine how the human mind can obtain and manage knowledge and how it restructures our existing knowledge, based on the new information received. Below are several concepts regarding knowledge that the researchers touched upon in their study.


Knowledge Is Context-Dependent

Knowledge cannot be fully digested if the information is presented out of context. It is the context that allows learners to understand the interconnectivity between different components. This allows learners not only to understand a concept but also to apply it in a different setting. This is especially important for more mature learners, who also want to know why they learn something and how to apply new knowledge in real-life settings.


Knowledge Cannot Be Oversimplified

Oversimplification is necessary for learners who are just beginning to familiarize themselves with a topic. When we are just encountering a new concept, oversimplification can be helpful, especially if it allows us to relate a new rule to something we already know. However, if oversimplification is used on more mature students, it may bring about a false sense of familiarity and understanding, which will lead us potentially to overlook the topic.


Knowledge Is Interconnected

Knowledge Is Interconnected
Knowledge Is Interconnected

It is important to remember that if we learn a concept, it is not isolated from the rest of the topic and can be used together with previously acquired knowledge. To retain knowledge more effectively, you may want to build on a topic gradually and first recall what you already know before moving on to new material. To ensure that the baseline material is digested, consider taking a few assessments such as a diagnostic test before studying a topic and afterwards to see the progress. Sometimes recognizing a topic gives a false sense of understanding a topic, so make sure to tackle misconceptions, too.


What Hinders Cognitive Flexibility?

Our brain has evolved certain triggers to help it to adapt to different environments. Some of them ease the brain’s work by allowing it not to get overloaded with information. Knowing about certain biases and intentionally avoiding them can improve our cognitive flexibility.


Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a term that describes our preference for information that confirms our previous beliefs. For example, people who believed that the Earth was flat tended to ignore the facts that indicated otherwise. Individuals search for and pick information that favours their ideas and that can skew reality not only in everyday life but also in academic research. To overcome this phenomenon, purposefully seek out contradictory information and avoid confirming questions to ensure that you get the full picture and have more facts to either confirm your beliefs or disprove them.


Salience Bias

We favour information that stands out
We favour information that stands out

This phenomenon is a tendency to focus on and favour information that stands out. Because our brain is constantly bombarded with information, it tries to avoid information overload and tends to pick out details that differ from the rest. That’s why we choose to use highlighters and bold fonts to underline core information. Deliberately making things stand out can work to our advantage in setting goals or reminding us of to-do tasks by putting them on colourful sticky notes. The more you see something, the more you think about it and the higher are the chances that you will do it.


Rigid Thinking

Rigid thinking happens when we are unable to see alternatives to the current situation. Rigid thinkers tend to hang on to preconceptions and generalizations and fear unexpected changes in circumstances. To avoid concentrating on one thing that might bog you down, take steps towards introducing alternative ways to do something, have several options for the choices that you need to make, and start introducing changes to your everyday routine.



Reinforcement refers to a cue that strengthens a specific response. For example, hearing an alarm in the morning indicates the need to wake up, or seeing a notification on the home screen triggers the urge to respond. There are four types of reinforcement: positive, negative, punitive, and terminal. Let’s focus on the first two. For positive reinforcement, you want to praise or reward yourself for a certain action. You can apply this method to building new habits. Negative reinforcement refers to taking away something of value to bring about a shift to the behaviour that you desire. An example of that would be paying someone once they complete a job, and not before.


How to Improve Cognitive Flexibility?

Just as happens with almost everything else, improving our cognitive abilities requires us to devote deliberate time to working the issue. In addition to the quick exercises below, you can also download some brain power apps like Luminosity and Brain Training  which have memory and multitasking games aimed to engage your gray matter.

Record your experiences. Do a brain dump with the help of morning pages, or record an audio saying things that are on your mind. This frees up cognitive energy or working memory to help you stay focused on other tasks.

Learn new skills. The act of learning new skills requires our brain to overcome the initial resistance to promoting mental flexibility. New skills strengthen existing neuron paths and help create new connections

Change your routine
Change your routine


Change your routine. If you like planning your daily tasks and generally favour predictability over spontaneity, plan small steps to bring change into your routine. Choosing a new route to work, ordering a new meal and purposefully stepping out of your comfort zone will allow your brain to practice quickly adapting to new situations.


Practice thinking creatively. Divergent thinking is a way of thinking in a non-linear, spontaneous manner and is used to explore various possible solutions to a problem. Usually we tend to stick to the solutions that are generally accepted, thus leaving no room for creativity. A simple exercise to practice creative thinking is to discipline yourself with “100 bad ideas brainstorming”, whereby you deliberately create absurd solutions that are free from judgment.

Challenge your morals. Deliberately exposing yourself to various beliefs and values can give you a better understanding of other cultures and their norms, which then leads to more flexible thinking. You don’t necessarily need to agree with someone’s belief system; however, putting yourself in other people’s shoes gives you a greater understanding of their actions, making it easier to resolve conflicts in communication.

New technologies are emerging at the junction of scientific fields, thus requiring people from different backgrounds to work together and solve problems that haven’t existed before. Cognitive flexibility, amongst other soft skills, provides us with universally applicable techniques to try to look at the world from a different angle.

Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontages: Martina Advaney

Check out the other articles in the series of Top Future Skills:

  1. Complex Problem Solving
  2. Critical Thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People Management and Coordination
  5. Emotional Intelligence
  6. Judgment and Decision Making  
  7. Negotiation 
  8. Service Orientation

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