Creativity, Culture and Study Abroad

Lots of interesting news in the psychological research arena these days, particularly with regard to possible links between studying abroad and creativity.

photo of street in Tallinn Estonia on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

According to Sam McNerney’s article yesterday on BigThink.com on Why Traveling Abroad Makes Us More Creative (Part II) first up was a 2009 series by researchers at Northwestern University (Maddux and Galinsky) which found that students who studied abroad scored higher on tests for creativity.

As McNerney explains, experiencing different perspectives, as in the case of studying in a foreign country, opens us up to broader interpretations as to the meaning for any given thing.

Essentially, when you physically and emotionally experience cultural differences, as opposed to merely reading about them, you are changed by it. And that change seems to encourage a wider thought process including stimulating creativity.

Then came a study out of Indiana University (Jia et al.) which found that ‘psychological distance’ can boost creativity. How so?

Students were tasked with listing as many forms of transportation as possible. Those who were told the instructions came from students studying in Greece had longer lists of modes of transportation with more originality than those told the task was developed by students nearby.

Think about that: just by believing that the task directions originated in a foreign country, those students were more creative in their responses. Did they somehow feel empowered to think more broadly, coming up with wide-ranging and innovative responses?

Now the latest: a study released last month ‘On the Cognitive Benefits of Cultural Experience: Exploring the Relationship Between Studying Abroad and Creative Thinking’ by researchers (Lee, Therriault, Linderholm) at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

Students were split into three groups (had already studied abroad, were planning to study abroad or had no interest in doing so) and given a series of creative activities under the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults which measures general creativity and the Cultural Creativity Task measuring culturally specific creativity.

Not surprisingly, the group of students who had previously studied abroad scored higher on the CCT. But by also scoring higher on the ATTA, the U of FL researchers believe they have found a linkage between study abroad and increased creativity.

Now they are the first to point out that their tests don’t determine causal or correlative relationships, only that a relationship appears to exist. Further tests are needed to support their findings, especially those that do pre- and post-study abroad assessments and also controlling for factors such as length of study and location. But in general:

‘We were excited to find that students who studied abroad generated ideas that were higher in quality and more novel in both a general as well as culture-specific measure of creativity (compared to students who did not study abroad). We believe our findings have relevant implications regarding the benefits of multicultural experiences in creative thinking.’

Additional testing will also help address whether the findings to date have been causal or correlative: that is, whether study abroad increases creativity or more creative types often choose to study abroad.

McNerney extrapolates the research on studying abroad to living in a different country/culture, and by inference, traveling extensively. He speaks of gaining a ‘cultural footprint…one that will influence you to generate more creative solutions to everyday problems’. I think the same would hold true for interns working overseas as well.

Tom Jacobs joined the discussion earlier this month with his article on CreativityPost.com To Boost Creativity, Study Abroad (originally published at Pacific Standard magazine). His perspective on the study by Lee and colleagues?

If you’re looking for employees to think creatively and come up with outside-the-box or thought-provoking solutions, one consideration is whether a candidate has studied or lived abroad.

He cites the latest study’s researchers that their results suggest ‘the actual immersion in a foreign culture’ boosts one’s creativity.

‘Our findings indicate that studying abroad support cognitive processes involved in developing innovative solutions.’

My take?

It makes sense to me. I’d like to think that studying abroad in Mexico during university days opened my mind not only to a new country and culture, but also to the ideas, beliefs and ways of thinking of the people I lived with, studied under and/or encountered along the way.

I also know that before I studied overseas I already knew I wanted to live in different countries and multicultural environments someday. I was already deep into international affairs as a course of study.

Do I think it made me more creative? I hope so, just as I hope (nay, dare I believe?) that I’m far more creative now having lived as an expat in the Netherlands for several years and having traveled to dozens of countries across five continents.

I also realize that it’s hard to isolate that factor from my career change to a more creative field: writing.

Do I think creativity requires living abroad? No, of course not.

But I sure do like the odds that living across cultures helps enhance the creative mind.









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