Getting a grip on cognitive flexibility

Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2018 Dec;27(6):470-476. doi: 10.1177/0963721418787475. Epub 2018 Oct 16.


Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to quickly reconfigure our mind, like when we switch between different tasks. This review highlights recent evidence showing that cognitive flexibility can be conditioned by simple incentives typically known to drive lower-level learning, such as stimulus-response associations. Cognitive flexibility can also become associated with, and triggered by, bottom-up contextual cues in our environment, including subliminal cues. Therefore, we suggest that the control functions that mediate cognitive flexibility are grounded in, and guided by, basic associative learning mechanisms, and abide by the same learning principles as more low-level forms of behavior. Such a learning perspective on cognitive flexibility offers new directions and important implications for further research, theory, and applications.

Keywords: Associative learning; Cognitive control; Cognitive flexibility; Reinforcement learning; Task switching.