Cognitive flexibility is the ability to think of something in more than one way. Research examining cognitive flexibility in 3- to 5-year-olds typically focuses on consecutive cognitive flexibility—the ability to consider several dimensions of a single stimulus one after another (e.g., sorting cards depicting blue boats and red rabbits by colour and then by shape). However, relatively little research examines preschoolers’ concurrent cognitive flexibility skills—their ability to coordinate several dimensions of a single stimulus simultaneously (e.g., understanding that a blue boat can be both blue and a boat at the same time). The current work focuses on emerging concurrent cognitive flexibility skills in preschoolers. In Study 1, though a structural differentiation between consecutive and concurrent cognitive flexibility was not supported, an exploration of the data suggested that these skills are affected differently by abstraction demands—whether children had to induce the relevant dimensions on their own or were told which dimensions to consider. In this study, 121 preschoolers (Mage = 48.12 months; SD = 5.37) received 6 different cognitive flexibility tasks.
Consistent with Jacques and Zelazo’s (2005) review, children found deductive tasks—tasks in which the experimenter provides all the information to the participants—easier than inductive tasks—tasks that required children to identify the relevant dimensions themselves—in the context of consecutive cognitive flexibility. In contrast, these children found inductive concurrent cognitive flexibility tasks easier than deductive concurrent cognitive flexibility tasks, indicating that abstraction demands affect children’s performance on these two cognitive flexibility skills differently. In Study 2, this finding was partially replicated using an experimental design: under certain conditions, 5-year-olds (N = 76) found concurrent cognitive flexibility easier in its deductive (unlabeled) version, as compared with its inductive (labeled) version. However, this was not the case for 4-year-olds (N = 84), or for another task measuring concurrent cognitive flexibility. These findings can be interpreted using the Attentional Inertia Account (e.g., Diamond, 2012; Kirkham, Cruess, & Diamond, 2003), which argues that the critical skill required to succeed in cognitive flexibility tasks is the ability to disengage from a previously relevant dimension.