Cognitive flexibility matters more than IQ

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Louise Hay
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Cognitive flexibility matters more than IQ

Cognitive flexibility is a skill that not only allows us to make better decisions, but also has an impact on emotional well-being. It can be developed and is instrumental in predicting our future success, more than the classic IQ.

Last update: December 24, 2021

For many, IQ is synonymous with success or the necessary condition to obtain it. However, many of the great works and discoveries were the fruit of people who were not distinguished by what is conventionally known as intelligence. They boasted another skill: cognitive flexibility.



This term refers to traits such as imagination, creativity, empathy and curiosity. These skills allow you to learn and adapt to changing dynamics. These virtues, along with perseverance, are the basis of many human advances.

Cambridge University and Nanyang Technological University are conducting a study on cognitive flexibility. Scholars believe that this quality is more decisive than the IQ, which is why they have studied how to develop it.

“Cognitive flexibility is essential for the prosperity of society. It can maximize the ability to produce innovative ideas and creative inventions. Ultimately, these are the qualities we need to solve today's great challenges ”.

-Beth Daley-

Cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility can be defined as a skill that favors the change of one's point of view and adaptation to a new environment. The person applies the learned patterns or concepts to new realities.

To give an example, many people have to resolve inner conflicts in order to adapt to new circumstances, the same also happens in the corporate and institutional sphere.


In most cases, rather than working to adapt to a new reality, you want to stay in their state.


A not so extreme example is that of the person who always takes the same path to go to work. If one day he discovers that there is construction going on on the usual route, he has two options.

Take the same route and stay late or find an alternative route. This is where cognitive flexibility comes into play.

Rationality and creativity

Cognitive flexibility is associated with the frontal and nigrostriatal brain areas. The former allow for higher cognitive processes, the latter are associated with reward and motivation.

Scholars have shown that if two people have the same IQ, those who also have cognitive flexibility will perform better.

Apparently this ability translates into a form of pragmatic rationality that leaves little room for emotions. It corresponds to direct data processing, without fear or anger, for example.

This is the case of someone who sees a fire in the kitchen and throws a damp cloth to put it out. A pragmatic approach calls for calling the fire brigade.

Overall, cognitive flexibility places more emphasis on information processing than other factors. The result is a more rational response to new situations.

Likewise, as long as the process prevails and not prior learning, creative and innovative solutions are more easily reached.

Empathy and resilience

IQ is associated with the so-called crystallized intelligence: the ability to acquire new concepts, assimilate them and apply them. Likewise, judge a situation and draw the necessary conclusions.


On the other hand, fluid intelligence, which corresponds to cognitive flexibility, above all impliesor the ability to reason and contrast data. This, in turn, has repercussions not only on cognition as such, but also on emotional and social skills.


This fundamental ability to adapt translates into greater resilience, that is, a greater ability to accept and overcome difficult situations.

On the other hand, cognitive flexibility helps develop more empathy. It generates a much more open mind to judge others, which pushes away prejudice. Both empathy and resilience allow for greater emotional well-being.


Conclusions on cognitive flexibility

The Cambridge and Nanyang study showed that cognitive flexibility training generates significant progress in children with autism and in the elderly.

In general, any person benefits when they strengthen and develop the ability to adapt and find new ways out of a difficult situation.

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