Spending time living abroad can set the creative juices flowing. But it doesn't work for everyone and a new study helps explain why. To extract maximum benefit from time in a foreign land, what's needed is a "bicultural" perspective - the ability to identity with your new home, but all the while continuing to connect with your native country too.
This form of dual acculturation breeds creative and professional success, the new findings suggest, because it encourages a sophisticated style of thought. Juggling the conflicts and complexities of a dual-identity fosters an ability to register multiple perspectives and to understand the conceptual relations between them ("a habitual tool for making sense of the world", in the researchers' words).
Carmit Tadmor and her colleagues began by studying 78 MBA students of 26 different nationalities at a European Business School. All had spent time living in one of 31 different foreign countries. Factors such as personality and age were taken into account through all the study analyses.
Those students who'd assumed a bicultural perspective (as opposed to those identifying steadfastly with their original culture only, or those who'd gone entirely native and rejected their home identity) performed better on a lab test of creativity - coming up with new uses for a brick. Moreover, this advantage was mediated by their scores on "integrative complexity" - the thinking style mentioned earlier, in which multiple perspectives are appreciated and linked.
A second study involved 54 MBA students at a business school in the USA, all of whom had spent time living abroad. This time the biculturals were found to have been more innovative in real life (in terms of setting up new businesses; inventing new products and services). Again, this creative advantage was mediated by the "integrative complexity" of their thinking.
Finally, the researchers surveyed 100 Israeli professionals, most of them working in Silicon Valley. Their average time in the States was 9 years. The biculturals in this sample had enjoyed more promotions and had superior professional reputations (based on the judgment of one of their peers), compared with the participants who identified only with their Israeli heritage or only with their adopted American culture. Again, this professional advantage was mediated by the biculturals' "integrative complexity" in their thinking.
Tadmor and her team acknowledge that their results are limited by being cross-sectional - it's possible that professional success encourages a complex thinking style; that a complex thinking style provokes a bicultural approach to life, and so on. But they pointed to past longitudinal research that showed biculturals' thinking became more integratively complex over time, as compared with the thinking of mono-cultural individuals - so it's certainly plausible that acquiring a bicultural perspective plays a causal role. The researchers also admitted that a bicultural perspective could have other positive benefits besides encouraging complex thought - for example, by catalysing better relations with colleagues. There could be downsides too. The process of becoming bicultural is likely a stressful demanding experience.
If you're planning to live abroad for creative benefit, there are clear lessons to take away from this research, but we still don't know how much it's possible to choose to adopt a bicultural perspective. More research will be needed to look into this. Another detail worth noting is that participants in this study who rejected both their original home identity and their new adopted identity (known as "marginals"), also showed greater integrative complexity and more creative success, though not to the same extent as biculturals. Perhaps, the researchers surmised, being culturally independent also fosters a complex style that aids creative thought.
Tadmor CT, Galinsky AD, & Maddux WW (2012). Getting the Most Out of Living Abroad: Biculturalism and Integrative Complexity as Key Drivers of Creative and Professional Success. Journal of personality and social psychology PMID: 22823287
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Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.