Behavioral flexibility refers to the ability to adapt effectively to the changing external or internal environment.
Behavioral flexibility is the ability to adapt effectively to the changing external or internal environment (Ragozzino et al. 1999). The term is used interchangeably with cognitive flexibility and behavioral plasticity. It involves the ability to inhibit behaviors that are inappropriate in the social milieu while promoting adaptive behavior corresponding to the current environment. It refers to behavior reflecting a conscious, cognitive change, thereby excluding reflexive, automatic behaviors.
Flexible behavior is often controlled by basic cognitive systems. For example, shivering due to a drop in temperature may elicit a behavioral response such as putting on a coat or lighting a fire which is an example of behavioral flexibility. In this respect, the ongoing (maybe inactive) behavior is stopped or changed with a new behavior initiated. In addition, behavioral responses that occur due to a change in either the internal or external environment demonstrate behavioral flexibility. For example, planning how to find food in response to hunger illustrates an internal cue while planning a route to escape from a threatening stimulus demonstrates an external environmental cue.
Behavioral Flexibility in Social Psychology
Research on behavioral flexibility has occurred for decades in the field of psychology. Early accounts of the issue include the works of Gestalt Psychologists as p factors (preservation, Spearman 1927) and Open and Closed Mind (Rokeach 1960). Self-monitoring is one of the measures used in social psychology. It includes the concern for social appropriateness and the control of behavioral expression. In other words, self-monitoring incorporates the ability for intentional social observation and the ability to use social clues for adaptive behavioral adjustment. Androgyny is another formulation to evaluate flexibility. Bem (1974) suggested that those who identify as androgynous report having both masculine and feminine traits are inherently more flexible since they instrumentally and expressively behave in accordance with a possible combination of dimensions including dominance versus submission and warmth versus coldness.
Behavioral flexibility is viewed as a temperamental trait for some scholars (e.g., Rusalov and Biryukov 1993), while others define it as stable trait marking individual differences (e.g., Schmuck and Wobken-Blachnik 1996). Scholars conceptualizing flexibility as a stable behavioral pattern pointed out two components of behavioral flexibility: (a) a wide behavioral repertoire and (b) the ability to adaptively adjust to situational demands. Flexible behavior has been suggested to be one of the cardinal factors of psychological adjustment (e.g., Leary 1957). Reported anxiety, difficulty, and avoidance indexes are more closely linked to a lack of functional flexibility, as it relates to deliberate control and behavioral adjustment.
Both age and gender differences emerge with regard to behavioral flexibility. Generally speaking, an increase in competency occurs from late childhood to early adulthood. In early adolescents, females perform better when compared with males, yet males show increasing competence throughout the adolescent phase.
Behavioral Flexibility in Experimental Psychology
In experimental psychology, the concept of behavioral flexibility emerges from both animal and human research on learning. Reversal learning, set-shifting, and self-control have been used commonly to test behavioral flexibility. In the reversal learning paradigm, the individual first learns to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant stimuli after which they are expected to reverse their choice. Related to reversal learning, set-shifting, which is an executive function, involves the ability to unconsciously shift attention from one task to another. Self-control, sometimes referred to as cognitive control, is considered to be another key aspect of behavioral flexibility. Self-control refers to the ability to critically evaluate a situation, rather than reflexively responding. One inhibits their initial reaction replacing it with an indirect but more effective and socially appropriate behavioral response.
Behavioral Flexibility in Neuropsychology
Neurological researchers have highlighted the importance of the neural mechanisms underlying behavioral flexibility. Studies have shown that behavioral flexibility is sensitive to changes in prefrontal cortex function (e.g., Dalton et al. 2016) with different subregions governing distinct components of flexible behavior. The findings have suggested that different prefrontal regions of the brain make distinct contributions to separate aspects of behavioral flexibility. One such region, the orbital prefrontal cortex (OFC), functions in emotion regulation and inhibition; another key region, the striatum, is integral to social behavior and is activated in response to rewards occurring in social situations. Another area, the nucleus accumbens (NAc), is involved in the mediation of various components of behavioral flexibility. The midline thalamic areas, which consist of the mediodorsal (MD) and the interlaminar brain regions, are reciprocally connected with the entire prefrontal region, and in addition, this area send signals to the aforementioned NAc (Florescoa et al. 2009). Concordantly, the prefrontal cortex is paramount in adaptive behavioral control, and lesions to this area can have detrimental consequences on behavioral flexibility. Research results have revealed neurological disorders characterized by damage or impaired functioning in the prefrontal cortex such as schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and Parkinson’s disease manifest a state of cognitive inflexibility or an impaired ability to shift attention effectively.
For decades psychologist have studied behavioral flexibility due to its importance in intra- and interpersonal functioning. The prefrontal cortex and related regions are paramount in regulating behavior and decision-making by rapidly responding to both internal and external cues promoting conscious, prosocial behavioral choices in place of reflexive responses. Research has shown that damage or impaired functioning in the prefrontal cortex detrimentally impacts cognitive flexibility and the ability to shift attention which is a cardinal component in various neurological disorders.
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