Live and Learn Abroad to Boost Creativity

August 31, 2012 § 10 Comments

You’ve been overseas and you’re back in the US looking for work. Not many job descriptions say that the “ideal candidate will have lived outside the US.” So what transferable qualities or skills have your experiences developed in you? How about adaptability, flexibility, resilience, and empathy?

Here’s something else you can add to your qualifications, and there’s research to back up the claim: creativity.

Finding the Relationship between Creativity and Living Cross-Culturally

A few years ago, William Maddux and Adam Galinsky conducted a series of experiments that demonstrate the link between living abroad and creativity.

  1. In the first, the pair showed that the more time a subject had spent living (though not traveling) abroad, the more likely it was for him to solve a particular puzzle. But the cause-effect relationship wasn’t clear. What if it’s simply because creative people choose more often to live abroad?
  2. The second experiment verified the results, this time using built-in controls for personality factors that are linked to creativity in order to isolate the effects of living abroad.
  3. The third study had subjects who had previously lived abroad think and write about their experiences. They were then tested, showing a temporary increase in creativity.
  4. Study number four looked at adaption to a new culture as the main driver of increased creativity. It showed that the more a person adapted, immersing herself in a culture, the higher the creativity.
  5. And, finally, the fifth study followed up by showing that subjects with past living-abroad experience who then imagined and wrote about adapting to a foreign culture exhibited higher levels of creativity in a subsequent exercise.

(William Maddux and Adam Galinsky, “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship between Living Abroad and Creativity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, May 2009)

Wanting to Live Abroad Isn’t the Same

As described in a recent article in Pacific Standard, researchers at the University of Florida, Gainesville, further validated the idea that studying abroad increases creativity, rather than vice versa. The study, by Christine Lee, David Therriault, and Tracy Linderholm, looked at three groups of students: those who had studied abroad, those who were planning to study abroad, and those who had not nor were planning to study abroad. The first group scored higher than the other two in levels of creative thinking, suggesting that it’s the actual experience of living overseas, rather than a personality type that is inclined to do so.

(Tom Jacobs, “To Boost Creativity, Study Abroad,” Pacific Standard, August 6, 2012; Christine Lee, David Therriault, and Tracy Linderholm, abstract of “On the Cognitive Benefits of Cultural Experience: Exploring the Relationship between Studying Abroad and Creative Thinking,” Applied Cognitive Psychology, July 2012)

Diversification and Flexibility

In the abstract to their research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers from the Netherlands and California note that “past research has linked creativity to unusual and unexpected experiences, such as early parental loss or living abroad.” Their experiments suggest that it is the “diversifying” aspect of these experiences that brings about great “cognitive flexibility.”

(Simone Ritter, et al., abstract of “Diversifying Experiences Enhance Cognitive Flexibility,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, July 2012)

Learning the Whys of Culture Helps Even More

Back to Maddux and Galinsky, this time joined by Hajo Adam. Working on the idea that adapting to a new culture brings about novel ways of thinking, the researchers asked, “What is it about adaptation to foreign environments that is critical for facilitating the creative process?” They hypothesized that it is learning about a foreign culture in a multicultural setting that boosts creativity, To test this, the researchers assembled a group of university students in Paris who had previously lived abroad. They then “primed” part of the group by having them think and write about a time when they had learned about another culture. Others in the group did the same about a time of learning about their own culture. As predicted, the first group scored higher in a followup test of creativity.

The three then focused on “functional learning,” or “learning about the underlying reasons for observed foreign rituals, rules, and behaviors.” Subsequent experiments showed that creativity increased even more when the priming focused on not only on learning something new about another culture but learning when the subjects were actually able to find out the reason behind the cultural differences.

(William Maddux, Hajo Adam, and Adam Galinsky, “When in Rome . . . Learn Why the Romans Do What They Do: How Multicultural Learning Experiences Facilitate Creativity,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, June 2010)

Boosting Your Resume in a Globalized World

So, in review, if you want to develop your creativity, here’s the plan:

  1. live overseas
  2. adapt to another culture
  3. learn about that culture
  4. and learn why a culture is the way it is

In an article posted by the Kellogg School of Management, Maddux tells the American Psychological Association that their research

may have something to say about the increasing impact of globalization on the world, a fact that has been hammered home by the recent financial crisis. Knowing that experiences abroad are critical for creative output makes study abroad programs and job assignments in other countries that much more important, especially for people and companies that put a premium on creativity and innovation to stay competitive.

(Audrey Hamilton, “Living Outside the Box: New Research by Kellogg Professor Adam Galinsky Suggests That Living Abroad Boosts Creativity,” Kellogg School of Management, April 23, 2009)

[photo: “Globeism,” by Joel Ormsby, used under a Creative Commons license]

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