Living Abroad Seems to Bolster CreativityWhat experiences help people think creatively? William Maddux (INSEAD) and Adam Galinsky (Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University) have recently published a paper (pdf) detailing the results they obtained when they investigated whether there is an association between living abroad and creativity.1
Maddux and Galinsky carried out five studies:
- "Studies 1 and 2 provided initial demonstrations that time spent living abroad (but not time spent traveling abroad) showed a positive relationship with creativity."
Study 1 involved tackling a problem that required creative insight to solve. Participants who had lived abroad had a greater success rate than those who had not lived abroad.
Study 2 involved a mock negotiation. A successful outcome required "outside the box" thinking. Again, those participants who had lived abroad succeeded more often than those who had not.
- Study 3 investigated why living abroad seemingly contributes to creativity. The study "demonstrated that priming foreign living experiences temporarily enhanced creative tendencies for participants who had previously lived abroad." [link added]
Study 3 used an experimental approach with participants, all of whom had lived abroad. The participants were assigned randomly to four groups:
- One group "were asked to imagine living in a foreign country and, in particular, about the types of things that happen, how they feel and behave, and what they think during a particular day living abroad."
- A second group "were asked to imagine and write about a day traveling in a foreign country."
- A third group was primed "with cognitions associated with a nonforeign experience: a day in their life in their hometown."
- The fourth group was a control. They were given a prime in which they "were asked to recall and write about what happened the last time they went to the supermarket."
As hypothesized, the first group had a higher success rate in solving the creativity challenge a word game than those in the other groups (and the remaining groups had descending rates of success, as expected). Furthermore, the "temporary facilitative effect of comtemplating experiences living abroad was strongest for those participants who had lived abroad the longest."
- In Study 4, participants worked on the same creativity task as in Study 1. Maddux and Galinsky hypothesized that adaptation to a foreign culture is a key mechanism underlying the link between living abroad and creativity. The results of the study indicated that, indeed, "the degree to which individuals had adapted to different cultures while living abroad mediated the link between foreign living experience and creativity."
- Study 5 was another experimental effort. The creativity task was drawing an imagined foreign alien. As in Study 3, all participants had spent time living abroad and were assigned randomly to four groups:
- One group "were asked to imagine adapting themselves to a foreign culture and to write about the types of things that would happen, how they would feel and behave and what they would think about during a particular day adapting themselves to a foreign culture."
- A second group "imagined and wrote about observing a foreign culture."
- A third group was a control. Participants "recalled and wrote about learning a new sport." The idea was "to present a condition that was similar to adaptation in novelty but that did not involved a foreign experience."
- The fourth group was also a control. They received no priming prior to drawing their imagined space alien.
As hypothesized, "priming the experience of adapting to a foreign culture temporarily enhanced creativity for participants who had previously lived abroad."
Maddux and Galinsky "acknowledge that the current data do not demonstrate that living abroad causes permanent changes in trait-based creativity." Further research is necessary to test the longevity of the impact of living abroad on creativity. Maddux and Galinsky also note that "the current studies cannot rule out the reverse pathway: that creative people may be more likely to live abroad than noncreative people," On the other hand, Maddux and Galinsky are able to cite a number of reasons to believe that the causation indeed runs from living abroad to creativity, rather than vice versa.
As Galinsky puts it in a brief report of the research published by the Kellogg School, he and Maddux show "that there is some sort of psychological transformation that needs to occur when people are living in a foreign country in order to enhance creativity. This may happen when people work to adapt themselves to a new culture."
And Maddux comments, “This 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.” (An earlier post on the value of studying abroad is here.)
1 William W. Maddux and Adam D. Galinsky, "Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5 (May 2009), pp. 1047-1061.