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Why The Semi-Nomadic Himba Are So Good At Thinking Outside The Box

Researchers came up with a test to see if people are flexible thinkers. And they gave it to Westerners and to Himba people in Namibia. The results might surprise you.
Source: Leigh Wells/Getty Images

Sarah Pope drives to work every day. It takes the cognitive neuroscientist 10 minutes to get to her lab at the University of Texas at Austin, and 10 minutes to get back home. She thought it was the fastest route, until one day a roadblock forced her to take a back road, which cut her commute time in half.

Why didn't she try the better route earlier? She says it's an example of a tendency to stick to the familiar way of solving a problem. Psychologists call it "cognitive set." Psychologists who are interested in the opposite kind of mindset – flexible thinking – have confirmed this bias toward the familiar in experiment after experiment.

But in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology earlier this year challenges this dogma by testing the flexible thinking of non-Western cultures – in this case, the semi-nomadic Himba people of Namibia.

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