Home / Consumer / Kellogg School Corner | Living abroad helps boost creative output

Living in another country can be a cherished experience, but new research suggests it might also help expand minds. The research, published by the American Psychological Association, is the first of its kind to look at the link between living abroad and creativity.

“Gaining experience in foreign cultures has long been a classic prescription for artists interested in stimulating their imaginations or honing their crafts. But does living abroad actually make people more creative?" asks the study’s lead author, William Maddux, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Insead and a former visiting assistant professor and post-doctoral fellow at Kellogg School of Management. “It’s a long-standing question that we feel we’ve been able to begin answering through this research."

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

In one study, MBA students at Kellogg School were asked to solve the Duncker candle problem, a classic test of creative insight. In this problem, individuals are presented with three objects on a table placed next to a cardboard wall: a candle, a pack of matches and a box of tacks. The task is to attach the candle to the wall so that the candle burns properly and does not drip wax on the table or on the floor. The correct solution involves using the box of tacks as a candle holder—one should empty the box of tacks and then tack it to the wall, placing the candle inside it.

The solution is considered a measure of creative insight because it involves the ability to see objects as performing different functions from what is typical (that is, the box is not just for the tacks but can also be used as a stand). The results showed that the longer students had spent living abroad, the more likely they were to come up with the creative solution.

In another study, also involving Kellogg School students, researchers used a mock negotiation test involving the sale of a gas station. In this negotiation, a deal based solely on sale price was impossible because the minimum price the seller was willing to accept was higher than the buyer’s maximum. However, because the two parties’ underlying interests were compatible, a deal could be reached only through a creative agreement that satisfied both parties’ interests.

Here again, negotiators with experience of living abroad were more likely to reach a deal that demanded creative insight. In both studies, time spent travelling abroad did not matter; only living abroad was related to creativity.

Maddux and Galinsky then ran a follow-up study to see why living abroad was related to creativity. With a group of MBA students at Insead in France, they found, the more students had adapted themselves to the foreign cultures when they lived abroad, the more likely they were to solve the Duncker candle task.

“This shows us 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," says Galinsky.

Although these studies show a strong relationship between living abroad and creativity, these do not prove that living abroad and adapting to a new culture actually cause people to be more creative. “We just couldn’t randomly assign people to live abroad while others stay in their own country," says Maddux.

To help get at this question of what causes someone to be creative, the authors tried a technique called “priming". In two experiments, they asked groups of undergraduate students at the Sorbonne University in Paris to recall and write about the time they had lived abroad or adapted to a new culture; other groups were asked to write about other experiences, such as going to the supermarket, learning a new sport or simply observing, but not adapting to a new culture.

The results showed that priming students to mentally recreate their past experiences of living abroad or adapting to a new culture caused students, at least temporarily, to be more creative. For example, these students drew space aliens and solved word games more creatively than students primed to recall other experiences.

“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," says Maddux. “Knowing that experiences abroad are critical for creative output makes study-abroad programmes 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 is public affairs associate, American Psychological Association

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