Gain Cognitive Flexibility By Seeking Experiences that Test Your Morals

Cognitive Flexibility A family eats their dog after it has been run over by a car. Is this behavior right or wrong?

Our lives are filled with moral questions. Some of them we don’t have to deliberate over very long. Most Americans say it’s “wrong” to eat dogs without much deliberation. That’s because there’s agreement within our culture that it’s immoral, even disgusting. People from other parts of the world answer differently or at least hesitate. They have a culturally different perspective.

Disagreement about moral issues occurs within cultures too. For example, what should be the legal drinking age and what kinds of guns, if any, should private citizens be allowed to own?

To make things even more complicated, most cultures’ moral values even change over time.

Scandinavians have generally been in favor of shorter prison sentences than are used in the United States. People in the Middle and Far East often support more traditional roles for women. But then cases like the Breivik massacre and the recent, brutal sexual assault in India come along. Suddenly the values these societies consider fundamental come up for debate.

OK, so the fabric of morality confusing. But what does that have to do with your cognitive flexibility? Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt your way of thinking to fit the problem at hand.

Exposure to Diversity Increases Cognitive Flexibility

Research shows that people who are more exposed to situations that challenge their ideas about what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have greater cognitive flexibility.

Leilani Endicott and her colleagues Tonia Bock and Darcia Narvaez describe their findings in a paper on Moral Reasoning and Intercultural Experiences published in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations.

Endicott and her team surveyed a large group of college students about their multicultural experiences. They asked the students about how often they had travelled abroad—the types of experiences they had overseas and how much they engaged with the locals. They also asked about the activities and environments the students were exposed to in their home settings.

The researchers then gave the students a test to determine how flexibly they thought about moral questions. In the test the students read five moral dilemmas. For example, in one dilemma a father contemplates stealing food for his starving family from the warehouse of a rich man hoarding food.

The students rated the importance of a list of concerns a person might have in such a situation. By looking at the concerns they selected the researchers could determine the complexity of their moral reasoning.

If a student chose concerns that focused on the personal stakes that the actor may have had in the dilemma their moral reasoning was categorized as simple. If they selected concerns that recognized the need for laws, social cooperation, and norms they were considered intermediate. Finally, if they selected concerns that recognized that moral obligations are based on shared ideals, require give-and-take, and are open to debate they were thought highly flexible.

Questioning Your Moral Compass Can Lead to Cognitive Flexibility

Endicott and her team found that the more students had been exposed to cultural differences and diversity the more likely they were to have reached the most advanced stage of moral reasoning. They speculate that experiences with other cultures allow people to develop a better understanding of the variety of beliefs, values, expectations, and assumptions that others might use. And, having that kind of understanding gives a person flexibility in resolving possible conflicts.

This means that merely exposing yourself to cultural diversity and moral challenges can be enough to increase your cognitive flexibility, as well as your cross-cultural competence. If that’s the case, then imagine the possibilities if you take an even more active approach. That doesn’t mean that you have to change your morals or do things that go against them.

You don’t have to eat a dog. But, think about why some people might want (or need) to. Reading about moral dilemmas and thinking critically about them can increase your cognitive flexibility. In fact, the more eagerly your moral compass points you in a certain direction on an issue, the more you might learn from questioning it.

Image Credit: Carolyn_Sewell

Endicott, L., Bock, T., & Narvaez, D. (2003). Moral reasoning, intercultural development, and multicultural experiences: relations and cognitive underpinnings International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27 (4), 403-419 DOI: 10.1016/S0147-1767(03)00030-0


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About Louise Rasmussen

Dr. Louise Rasmussen is an applied cognitive psychologist. She enjoys helping people better understand how they and those around them think.


  1. Alexa says

    Personally, I don’t think I could ever eat a dog. The way I was brought up, morally, a dog is family. Just like sacred cows in India, I believe it is wrong. However, everything depends on who you are and your perspective on things. The other day, I heard about a woman who grew up in a bad neighborhood and sold drugs for extra money to save her family from poverty. She was finally caught and was told to serve something like 35 years. After about 11 years in prison, she planned an escape with her unlce and broke free. She went on to have a family and was known in her community as the most wonderful and sweet lady. She had three kids, volunteered at various places, and overall was a model citizen. She has devoted her second chance at life to being the best she could be. The point in prison is to make you a better person, to make you learn your lesson. Well, 17 years later the law finally caught up with her. Is it morally okay to send this rehabilitated, “model citizen” back to prison? Has she learned her lesson? Lets face it, if she had murdered, but turned into this wonderful person, you’d have a different opinion anyway, right? Debating over situations like these are a great way to enhance your cognitive abilities, simply because you have to inform yourself of the situation and think critically about what is important to you.

    • Louise Rasmussen says

      I definitely couldn’t eat MY dog (a very cute boxer, btw)…or any dog for that matter, probably. It’s always easier to be definitive sitting comfortably on your couch at home. But, if I were traveling abroad and some locals were eager for me to try an enticing dish they had slaved over that just happened to contain doggie meat…I’d probably go ahead. My desire to get to know them and their culture would trump my values. The thing is, I think, even though I love dogs I don’t find the practice of eating them inherently disgusting.

      My cross-cultural adventurism would, however, be challenged by Vietnamese Balut (eggs). Don’t think I could go there. That has nothing to do with moral values, though, because I have no qualms about eating duck whatsoever. Quite the opposite. It may have something to do with the fact that they contain undeveloped duck embryos. I have a hard time with the thought of eating an embryo. It’s not that I have something against eating young animals, though. I don’t mind veal (even though maybe I should, considering how the calves are raised). But then, a calf isn’t an embryo. As I think about it, for me, it’s more about the visual than any deeply held values attached to particular foods. If the Baluts were disguised in a stew where I couldn’t make out their ‘profiles’…I think I’d be more likely to have a go. But that’s just me. Hey, there was a journey of self-discovery!

      It’s fun and interesting to think about where one’s own lines go on different issues…and why they’re drawn where they are. In fact, you said it perfectly, Alexa: “Debating over situations like these are a great way to enhance your cognitive abilities, simply because you have to inform yourself of the situation and think critically about what is important to you.”

      PS: If you aren’t familiar with Baluts, look at the wikipedia entry for them at your own risk…

  2. Valerie says

    Having been exposed to other culture, I can confirm that my morals have been challenged and possibly increased my cognitive flexibility in my respect for other cultures. I believe that cross-cultural perspective plays a key role with the behavior of individuals who’s morals have been tested. Either they will change their morals or stay true to their compass.

  3. says

    Not all moral values change. There are fundamental values that are constant in time and place. Since time immemorial people were not allowed to kill, rob, steal, lie, break contracts, enslave etc. And if you go to Chile, Vietnam, South-Africa, Saudi-Arabia and your wallet gets stolen, you go to the police without checking the law books to see whether stealing is legal. If you catch a taxi driver in New Zealand lying, and get angry, you would be even more surprised if the driver told you: “Bad luck for you, here in New Zealand lying is allowed, it is even compulsory”.
    What changed was the size of the circle of the people protected by those values. While ancient Greeks did not enslave family members, or fellow citizens, today we embrace the whole humanity in the circle of fundamental values.

    Values that are not evidently linked to survival or fundamental biological and psychological needs, change more easily and differ from person to person, group to group, country to country, and in time.

  4. Kaitlin says

    I found this piece really interesting and the whole people eating their dog after it being run over made me really want to see what this was about. I agree while most people think it is off or wrong to do I believe that culture has a lot to do with what is right or wrong in certain communities, by no means do I say that you should eat your dog if it dies but if it’s that belifs than can we really blame them for their mental process or behaviors when that’s what they grew up in?

    • Louise Rasmussen says

      Thanks for your comment! You can find out more about dog eating practices–and how different people think about that moral issue in psychology today’s post titled Having your dog and eating it too. In addition to revealing the contents of a 9,400 year old human turd…this post describes a study of moral reasoning that was carried out by Jonathan Haidt in which he asked people a series of moral questions (including the one about eating dogs). He found that people often have a hard time coming up with logical reasons to support their positions on moral issues. And, it also gives you more information about different cultures’ perceptions of dog eating practices…plus links to other interesting sources.

      Bon appetit…

  5. Danielle Soots says

    The moral compass of most is more than likely a bit off from others. Everyone does not think the same way because of one thing or another. There are many perspectives in psychology which can help you understand why others think what they are doing is right and wrong. The perspectives are biolgical, psychodynamic, humanistic, positive pschology, cognitive, evolutionary and cross cultural. Biological perspective is the study of the brain. Psychodynamic is unconsense and influences aof early childhood. Humanistic is how to be the best you can be, positive psych. is the study of positive emotions and cognitive is what you think. Evolutionary is Darwins thoughts and cross cultural is how other cultures think. I believe that if we applied this to the dog example we would figer out why some people believe it is okay using these perspectives. If we were to look at the Humanistic perspectives some would say the best thing for everyone is to eat the dog but the best thing for you , if it was your dog would be to not eat him. People always have a two sided view on moral questions because of these perspectives. If you can see why people think like they do you will be able to understand more.

  6. Nick Simon says

    I do agree with the idea that moral interpretations vary by culture, influence, mindset and a number of other factors. However, I question the idea that being able to bend your way of thinking based on the situation is “simple” or not as “cognitively flexible”. Perhaps not. But then, this must raise the question; is TRUE morality relative? Is there something higher than all cultures and systems of belief that simply defines “right and wrong”? If there is such a device, then it would be better NOT to be cognitively flexible, but rather to seek understanding of absolute morality, and do ones best to bring that morality to the situation. If there is NO such thing as absolute morality, other problems arise. Can my culture transcend yours? Or is it the other way around? Is it defined by whose culture we are currently in? Morality is different then customs. Morality reaches into emotion, love, and the soul. The question perhaps should be not what is the best way to develop cognitive flexibility, but rather (based on this question of absolute morality), is cognitive flexibility really an advantage at all?

  7. Tiffany says

    Culture has alot to do with the way people live their lives. I feel this has as much to do with Cognitive perspective as it does with humanistic perspective in the minds of different people in different cultures. With that said, people in the United States are far more likely to not eat their dog than people may be in another country.

  8. Ashley Nordmann says

    When being asked any question involving morals, how you were raised has a major roll in the response you will receive. The way that people process and think has to do with the cognitive perspective of the individual. In this article the question being asked is it morally acceptable to eat your dog after it has been run over, in most cases many people born and raised in the United States, would automatically say no. Even though questions like this seem to be obvious, it may not be that way with other people from different cultures. We all have different thinking process. The question in my opinion goes hand in hand with cross-cultural perspective because of the influence patterns of behavior in different cultural settings and countries. What may be a logical answer to your culture may not be the same for another culture. I agree with most of these concepts but the cognitive flexibility make me wonder if your reasoning and thinking process can be challenged then does it really matter what culture you are raised in?

  9. Lorena Barbosa PSY-101 Harden says

    Cross-cultural psychology is so important, it looks at how cultural factors influence human behavior.Here is an example: I was born and raised in Brazil where people are very tactile: we greet each other by hugging and kissing.When I moved to the United States I noticed that the americans were not as warm as we are when greeting. I caught myself being a little ethnocentric (tendecy to use your own culture as the standard for judging other cultures) at first , but as I got to know them better I learned that it had to do with their culture. There are so many different cultures in this world , that makes really hard to judge which one is right or wrong.The best thing to do is to learn about other cultures that way , instead of judging we will be able to understand and maybe get to try new things!!(Eating a dog,maybe!!!).

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