Diversity of Experience and Flexibility
Aging brings the risk of rigidity: Finding tradition more appealing than originality, and the delicate balance between the old and the new may shift as time passes. "The expert can become so entrenched in a point of view or way of doing things that it becomes hard to see things differently" (Sternberg, 1996, p. 347). Experts may have more difficulty adapting to changes than novices because of increased rigidity.
What can be done to prevent rigidity? Simonton (2000) investigated the careers of 59 classical composers and found that two factors were particularly good predictors of the differential aesthetic success of their operas: specialization ("overtraining") having a negative effect and versatility ("cross-training") having a positive effect.
The benefit of being exposed to diverse influences is well illustrated by history and the advantages conferred on civilizations "standing at crossroads." The immune system of 15th-century Europeans was strengthened by the diversity of people and diseases the continent had been exposed to for millennia. This likely explains why Columbus' sailors survived, even exposed to new Carib Indian diseases, but the Carib Indians were decimated. Going beyond health and into culture, Tasmanian Aborigines, who were cut off from trade routes by the almost impassable Tasman Strait, saw the sophistication of their tools deteriorate across 2,000 years while those of the more nomadic Australian Aborigines improved (Diamond, 1997). By standing at crossroads, civilizations are given opportunities to integrate and make connections between unrelated and disparate influences (Mednick, 1962).
At the individual level, increased flexibility is likely one of the main mechanisms explaining the benefits of diverse experience. Research suggests that living and adapting to foreign cultures facilitates creative thinking by enhancing integrative complexity, a thinking style we discuss in the next section (Simonton, 1994, 1997; Tadmor, Galinsky, & Maddux, 2012).
Other recent research suggests that any unusual and unexpected experience can increase cognitive flexibility. In a series of experiments, Ritter et al. (2012) exposed participants to unusual, schema- violating experiences in a virtual reality environment (e.g., as people walked closer to a suitcase standing on a table, the size of the suitcase decreased, but as they walked away, the size increased). Those who actively engaged in this unusual virtual world subsequently scored higher in cognitive flexibility (they switched categories more on a measure of divergent thinking) than a group of people who did not experience the unusual events.
Diversity, flexibility, and aging. As we age we have more opportunity to encounter diversity. To the extent that we stay open to experience, and to the extent more experience is not just more repetition, aging allows us to "stand at crossroads." Our propensity to welcome—instead of reject—such experience is likely influenced by some of the personality influences discussed next.