Flexible thinking: A new model for growth and innovation through people

Flexible thinking makes it possible to solve complex problems, that is to say, problems characterized by an ensemble of apparently disconnected facts and information which require the application of logical and critical analysis instruments, but also of intuitive and emotional tools in order to manage the complexity of the relationship effectively. 

Cognitive flexibility (flexibilitas in Latin means elasticity) is the ability to think using all the means afforded by the personality by using different "categories" according to the different counterparts and situations. A significant contribution to the study of cognitive and communication processes has been given in recent years by behavioural sciences, whose results have been used only partly to improve the quality of life and the effectiveness of trust in relationships.

The extreme frontier of sciences, maybe the most interesting, is the understanding of the biological grounds of awareness and of the mental paths which make it possible for us to act, perceive, learn and remember. The central doctrinal nucleus which emerges from modern neuroscience studies can be summarized in the statement that each behaviour is the expression of a cerebral function. What we generically call "mind" can be considered the result of a combination of cerebral functions.

The choice of cognitive and relational tools depends on their knowledge according to an original and innovative model on the Flexible Thinking.


©2011 Francesco Sansone

Flexible thinking consists of combining the elements of Logic, Ethics and Aesthetics and in tuning them to adjust to possible contexts and counterparts.

Logic investigates the principles of the validity of reasoning and of deductive argument. The study of logic is the effort to determine the conditions on the basis of which the step from given, said and granted statements to a presumable conclusion can be considered justified. The validity of logic lies in the relation between the premise and the conclusion, whereby when premise is true, the conclusion is also true. The identified skills at the basis of logic are as follows:  Choosing: grasping what is essential and analyzing; Ordering: collecting and binding together according to a predefined order; Planning: arranging what has been formerly selected into development strategies.

Ethics comes from Ethos, meaning "character." It is the study of people's standards and "competence attitudes" that rule human behaviour with the purpose of achieving the common good. Among the various virtues, referring to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the following "competence attitudes" are basic, essential elements for flexible and innovative behaviour: Foresight:  prudence and the ability to have a long-term view; Transparency: sincerity and loyalty; Perseverance: determination and tenacity.

Aesthetics is a philosophical discipline aiming at formulating a definition of what is beautiful as well as a definition of art, poetry, intuition, creativity and mental fluidity, that is to say, the ability to generate ideas.  The skills identified as the basis of aesthetics are as follows: Associating: awareness of analogies between apparently unrelated elements; Distinguishing: identifying similarities and differences and the categories to which concepts belong; Deconstructing and reconstructing: being able to see problems from several points of view.

Flexible thinking also combines and coordinates all structural components of personality harmoniously and, according to the psychophysiological orientation we are now going to examine each of the main tools available (2 hemispheres; 3 brains; and  4 cognitive styles), which together can be called the "conductor of the orchestra."   

The two hemispheres: The human brain consists of two halves connected by a system of nervous fibres. The two parts are usually called left hemisphere and right hemisphere. The nervous system is functionally connected with the brain, so that the left hemisphere controls the right-hand side of the body and the right hemisphere controls the left hand side. In the case, for example, of a stroke localized in the right-hand hemisphere, paralysis will take place in the left-hand side of the body.  In the last 20 years it has been discovered that each side of the brain controls two different types of mental processes. The left-hand side is logical, analytical, verbal, sequential, abstract, convergent, objective, active, critical, precise, and numerical. The right-hand side is analog, synthetic, non-verbal, holistic, empirical, divergent, subjective, receptive, non-critical, intuitive, and metaphorical.

Through his studies, Dr. R. Sperry (Nobel Prize in 1981) of the California Institute of Technology confirmed that both hemispheres are able to carry out complex cognitive processes, with the only peculiarity being that each of them is directly involved in and connected with specific thinking activities.  Sperry confirmed that the brain is able to carry out much more complex tasks than we can ever imagine and that it is possible to develop the areas of the brain which are the weakest.  This means, for example, that anyone can become a musician, a painter or a specialized technician. Sperry added that the process to develop a weaker hemisphere has a positive influence on the whole activity of the brain. 

The three brains: Another important scientific discovery is the identification of three cerebral systems having specific intellective functions in the human brain (P.D. MacLean).  The cortical system, called "cerebral cortex": This is particularly developed in human beings and is the area where abstract thinking functions are carried out. Its specific functions are conceptualizing, projecting into the future, analyzing, calculating and imagining. The limbic system situated in the midbrain: This is defined as the "meridian" brain, where memory is located.  It controls emotional responses related to personal experience and emotional intelligence is located here. Lastly, there is the reptilian brain: This is the most remote part of the human brain. It is considered the area where the survival and basic instincts are located. It is activated automatically by a series of perceptions and its response is immediate and difficult to control by the rest of the system.  

The four cognitive styles: By combining the two former models (the two hemispheres and the three brains), psychophysiological research has identified the use of cognitive patterns referring to the dominant activation of specific brain areas.  In fact, following the experience of the Hermann Brain Dominance Survey, it is possible to identify four cognitive styles (objectifying, anticipating, structuring, feeling) which can be associated with the activation of specific brain areas.

Objectifying: The person that uses objectification as dominant cognitive style thinks sequentially and logically. He or she is interested in facts and information as well as in quantities and numerical comparisons and loves a good debate, asks questions concerning everything and transforms the replies he or she receives into further questions. If he or she receives a reply which is not satisfactory, he or she makes objections. He or she wants to get to a decision. He or she prefers to obtain a tangible rather than an intangible result from an idea. He or she likes to see specifications, drawings, etc. His or her decision is based on logic and rarely on intuition. Normally he or she deals with administration, mathematics, IT or research. He or she wishes to know facts above all, which possibilities exist, how much things cost, which resources are necessary, which tests have been carried out, which analysis has been performed, what justifies a certain risk, which improvement the latter will bring. The opposite style is feeling: When you submit an idea to a person using this style, you must have prepared an evaluation and a complete analysis of all possible negotiation alternatives. You must think of all possible objections in advance. You must fix an appointment well in advance and know how much time this person will dedicate to the meeting. You must try to support the logical and sequential approach of the "analyser" and try to use the same "channel."

Structuring: Those who use the structural style handle information sequentially, exactly like those who use objectification as a dominant cognitive style. These people are organizers, methodical in their approach, and focus greatly on details. They are more interested in the "how" rather than in the specific contents of an idea or a proposal. As well as "analyzers," they very probably like to see or figure things and therefore they love seeing an execution plan, a mental structure or a system rather than a drawing and its prototype. They look for quality and reliability. Their decisions are based on feasability, predictability, usefulness and precise methods. People who focus on the "how?" question wish to know above all how something is going to be used, how it works, how it can be realized, whether it is possible to be sure that it is going to work.  The opposite style is anticipating. When you submit an idea to people who love anticipating, never surprise them. Use a progressive approach according to which your idea seems to be a logical step. The idea should express the concept of "making it possible to....", rather than "revolutionising..." Do not say how you can use something, but rather show it, and let them try it. Do not highlight the novelty, but underline that it is supported by proven experience and methods. Submit a realization plan or involve the "realizer" in the management of part of the project. Highlight procedural and practical problems which can be solved by the idea. Give written details and instructions. Note all their questions and objections and reply to them in a sequence. Even though the "analyzer" tends to think and the "realizer" tends "to do," both are clear examples of the dominance of the left hemisphere with sequentiality, linearity and logicity. The other two ways of thinking (imaginative and collaborative) are examples of simultaneity, syntheticity and intuition of the right-hand hemisphere.  

Anticipating: Those who use the anticipating cognitive style think in a synthetic and simultaneous way. One idea leads to another and causal associations take place. They do not work in a sequential flow, but prefer to follow several projects at the same time. The same happens with conversations. They love novelties, get bored with details and prefer global concepts. They prefer to "envisage" rather than to be analytical and when they take decisions they rely more on intuition rather than on logic. If they envisage great perspectives, they prefer risky ideas. They add their ideas to the ideas submitted to them.  Question: whether? These people like to know whether the idea is good, which future possibilities it involves, whether something has already been done in the past, how to add something more. The opposite cognitive style is structuring. When you submit an idea to these people, identify the "unique" factor of this idea. Do not make written proposals or presentations, because they may not even read them. Highlight concepts and not details. Touch on the most important point with analogies and metaphors. Invite them to contribute their ideas. Reassure them by saying that you will look after the realization plan and the details. Ask for their general comment and what they believe is missing. If you perceive a positive feeling, bring them to commit themselves immediately, because there is the risk that next time they will completely overturn the idea. 

Feeling: These people think simultaneously, rather than in a linear way, like those who anticipate. They acquire information through their senses, combined with their experience. They love to transform disagreement into harmony and are sympathetic as far as other people's emotions are concerned. They look for advantages in any idea, rather than for possibilities, originality or feasibility. Their decisions often result from intuitive sensitivity.  Question: why? These people like to know why other people should find the idea satisfactory, why they like it and why they think it is desirable. The opposite cognitive style is objectifying. When you submit an idea to these people, you must be familiar with their interests and relations. You must be open and empathic. The idea must be combined with a concept relating to the "needs" that he or she recognizes and that he or she can identify. Present the advantages. Give him or her the possibility to receive input from other people before the decision. Offer your availability the next time you submit the idea again.

Ned Hermann has coded the principle of brain dominance: Each person uses only one, or a maximum of two of the above cognitive styles for the comprehension of what surrounds him or her and for handling information, according to his or her culture and personality.   He or she uses the other styles only as a last resource.

The brain dominance: This principle also explains the ability we have to predict our counterpart's behaviour when specific events occur. When we define a person as emotional, cold and calculating, creative or fussy, we are probably looking at a person whose cognitive processes take place mainly in one single area of the brain who uses only one of the very many cerebral functions theoretically available. In order to develop cognitive flexibility correctly, it is necessary, first of all, to identify the style or the styles we usually use and to find out which brain area we are using when we are mainly Objectifying, Anticipating, Structuring or Feeling. Then we must learn to use also the other areas available. Obviously the four basic cognitive styles coexist in every human being and their suitable use in view of a certain objective and of a specific context is a precondition for effective communication.

Mutual understanding: Conciliating and establishing a relationship of trust will certainly be more effective if the cognitive style we use is on the same wavelength as the language used by our counterparts as far as enhancing personal value and service is concerned.


Francesco Sansone is President of "Valore" - Milan

Flavio Felice is President of Tocqueville-Acton Centre Studies in Milan and Adjunct Scholar American Enterprise Institute - Washington DC

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