Cultural variation in cognitive flexibility reveals diversity in the development of executive functions

Nature Scientific Reports 8 (16326):1-14 (2018)
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Cognitive flexibility, the adaptation of representations and responses to new task demands, improves dramatically in early childhood. It is unclear, however, whether flexibility is a coherent, unitary cognitive trait, or is an emergent dimension of task-specific performance that varies across populations with divergent experiences. Three-to 5-year-old English-speaking U.S. children and Tswana-speaking South African children completed two distinct language-processing cognitive flexibility tests: the FIM-Animates, a word-learning test, and the 3DCCS, a rule-switching test. U.S. and South African children did not differ in word-learning flexibility but showed similar age-related increases. In contrast, U.S. preschoolers showed an age-related increase in rule-switching flexibility but South African children did not. Verbal recall explained additional variance in both tests but did not modulate the interaction between population sample (i.e., country) and task. We hypothesize that rule-switching flexibility might be more dependent upon particular kinds of cultural experiences, whereas word-learning flexibility is less cross-culturally variable.
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