Sarah Michelle Pope, PhD



 I'm a cross-cultural psychologist studying creative problem solving across human cultures.

- Currently based out of the Department of Comparative Cultural Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology


National Geographic p


Our Brilliant Brains

Dr. Sarah M Pope

National Geographic Headquarters

November 8, 2019, 10 AM - 11:30 AM


National Public Radio presents:

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

April 7, 2019 7:00 AM ET


Research Overview

Sarah Pope's research explores how familiar solution strategies block better ones from being adopted. Sarah received her Doctorat en Psychologie from Aix-Marseille University in France and her PhD in Neuroscience from Georgia State University in the United States. Sarah has worked with chimpanzees for seven years, as well as several other nonhuman primate species including baboons and bonobos. Recently, Sarah assessed baboons' and chimpanzees' responses to a touchscreen task, which measured their abilities to replace a familiar solution strategy with a more creative one. She also used this task to explore variation in problem-solving approach within humans, both across age groups and cultures.

After receiving funding from the National Geographic Society, Sarah recently investigated cross-cultural differences in problem-solving approach between Westerners and the semi-nomadic Himba of northern Namibia. This research has led her to question how formal education might suppress problem solving creativity in humans.


Sarah has recently moved from the University of Texas at Austin to begin a post doctoral position at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Dr. Daniel Haun’s Department of Comparative Cultural Psychology.

Sarah is establishing a long-term field site in the Likouala region of the Republic of the Congo, working with the Bondongo and Bayaka peoples.

Research Focus

Cognitive set occurs when a known or familiar solution blocks a better alternative.


The Learned Strategy - Direct Strategy task is a nonverbal, non-arithmetic measure of cognitive flexibility. Unlike typical metrics, the LS-DS task does not require subjects to switch away from a learned strategy. Subjects learn, across three Training levels, how to select Square1 and then Square2 of a demonstration and then select the Triangle.  This Square1-Square2-Triangle solution constitutes the Learned Strategy (demonstrated by the white hand).  However, in PROBE trials, the Triangle appears alongside the demonstration thereby allowing subjects to either continue to employ their Learned Strategy or adopt the more efficient Direct Strategy (i.e. just selecting the Triangle; demonstrated by the yellow hand). 

Sarah's dissertation research utilized the LS-DS task to compare cognitive set (becoming stuck in a response strategy) between primate species and to assess the developmental and cultural influences on humans' ability to break cognitive set. It has now also been used as a measure of optional-switch cognitive flexibility in capuchins and rhesus macaques (Watzek, Pope, & Brosnan 2019).

Sarah's current research explores how cognitive set evolved within the primate lineage and how it varies across human cultures. 


 Cognitive Flexibility in Nonhuman Primates

To assess a likely evolutionary trajectory of cognitive set within the primate species, she created the nonverbal, computerized LS-DS task and tested baboons', chimpanzees', and humans' abilities to forsake a learned solution strategy in order to adopt a more efficient alternative.  

Perceptual and Conceptual Influences

During her research, perceptual influences on cognitive set have also been investigated by tracking subjects’ eye-movements during LS-DS task performance and conceptual influences have been manipulated across multiple studies.

Cross-Cultural Influences

To explore the role of culture and educational background on cognitive flexibility in humans, Sarah compared susceptibility to cognitive set on the LS-DS task between American participants and the semi-nomadic Himba of northern Namibia.  See Fieldwork for more information.

Additional Research Interests

Evolution of Imitation
Sarah is also interested in the association between social cognition and imitation in humans and nonhuman primates. She recently published a study which sought to understand the neural underpinnings of imitation in chimpanzees by teaching them to play a ‘Do As I Do’ imitation game and then identifying changes in white matter connectivity between Pre- and Post- training brain images, compared to controls.  





2018 Field Season with the BaYaka foragers and Bondongo farmers of the Republic of the Congo.

2017 Field Season with the Seminomadic Himba of northern Namibia.


Pope, S. M., Meguerditchian, A., Fagot, J. & Hopkins, W. D.  (2019) Optional-Switch Cognitive Flexibility in Primates: Chimpanzees’ (Pan troglodytes) Intermediate Susceptibility to Cognitive Set. Journal of Comparative Psychology, August 2019.

Watzek, J., Pope, S. M., Brosnan, S. F. (2019) Capuchin and rhesus monkeys but not humans show cognitive flexibility in an optional-switch task. Scientific Reports, 9(1) 13195.

Pope, S. M., Fagot, J., Meguerditchian, A., Washburn, D. A. & Hopkins, W. D. (2018) Enhanced cognitive flexibility in the semi-nomadic Himba. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 1-16.

Pope, S. M., Washburn, D. A. & Hopkins, W. D. Breaking cognitive set: seeing an alternative strategy is not the same as looking for one. Under revision –2019

Pope, S. M., Taglialatela, J.P., Hopkins, W. D. (2017) Changes in mirror region connectivity following Do-As-I-Do training in chimpanzees. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 30(3), 1-11.

Hopkins, W. D., Coulon, O., Meguerditchian, A., Autrey, M., Davidek, K., Mahovetz, L., Pope, S.M., Mareno, M.C., & Schapiro, S. J. (2017). Genetic Factors and Oro-Facial Motor Learning Selectively Influence Variability in Central Sulcus Morphology in Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Journal of Neuroscience, 2641-16.

Hopkins, W.D., Meguerditchian, A., Coulon, O., Misiura, M., Pope, S.M., Mareno, M.C., Schapiro, S.J. (2016) Motor skill for tool-use is associated with asymmetries in Broca’s Area and the Motor Hand Area of the Precentral Gyrus in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)Behavioural brain research, 318, 71-81.

Hopkins, W. D., McIntyre, J. M., Misiura, M, Pope, S. M., Reamer, L. A., Mareno, M. C., & Schapiro, S. J. Heritability of Asymmetries in the Homologs to Broca’s and Wernicke’s Areas in Chimpanzees (Pan Troglodytes) – In Revision.

Pope, S. M., Russell, J. L., & Hopkins, W. D. (2015). The association between imitation recognition and socio-communicative competencies in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Frontiers in psychology, 6.

Pope, S. M., Meguerditchian, A., Hopkins, W. D., & Fagot, J. (2015). Baboons (Papio papio), but not humans, break cognitive set in a visuomotor task. Animal cognition, 1-8.

Taglialatela, J.P., Russell, J., Pope, S.M., Morton, T., Bogart, S., Reamer, L.A., Schapiro, S.J., Hopkins, W.D.  (2015).  Multimodal Communication in Chimpanzees.  American Journal of Primatology, 77(11).

Hopkins, W.D., Misiura, M., Pope, S.M., Latash, E.M.  (2015). Behavioral and brain asymmetries in primates: A preliminary evaluation of two evolutionary hypotheses.  Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1359 (1).


Leakey Foundation Grant, 2019

National Geographic Early Career Grant, 2017

The Suttles Fellowship Award, 2016

Dissertation Research Grant, 2016

Kenneth W. and Georganne F. Honeycutt Fellow, 2015-2017

Chateaubriand Fellowship, 2013

2CI Primate Social Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior Fellowship, 2012-2017                            


The Leakey Foundation in San Francisco, CA 

National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.

Georgia State University Development Office in Atlanta, GA

Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA

Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA

French Embassy of the United States, Washington, D.C. 

Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA