Spend a few months living in a foreign land. Set your creative juices flowing. The idea sounds intuitive enough and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that it ought to work. Just think of painters like Picasso, or composers like Handel, both of whom created some of their most celebrated works while abroad. Now William Maddux and Adam Galinsky have joined the party with what they say is some of the first ever scientific evidence that living abroad really is associated with enhanced creativity.
Across three studies the pair made the following findings: students who’d spent more time abroad were more likely to work out how to affix a candle to a wall without the wax spilling; those who spent more time abroad were more likely to succeed in an awkward negotiation task that required a creative solution; and students primed to think about a time they’d lived abroad were more likely to identify a missing word connected in meaning with three clue words, than were students primed to think about travelling abroad or the last time they went to a supermarket.
Across these three studies, the association between foreign living and creativity held even after controlling for personality variables. In other words it wasn’t just that time abroad was a marker for having a creative personality. Another consistent finding was that travelling abroad had no association with creativity – only living abroad did.
Two final studies sought to identify the mechanism by which living abroad might be linked with creativity. Maddux and Galinsky found preliminary evidence that it might be the act of adapting to a foreign culture that serves to boost creativity. Among 133 European business students who spent time living abroad, it was those who said they’d adapted more to the foreign culture who subsequently solved more hidden words. A final study showed that students primed to think about when they’d adapted to a foreign country subsequently drew more novel-looking aliens than did their peers who were asked to think about when they’d observed a foreign country or learnt a new sport.
The researchers cautioned that longitudinal research is needed to more fully test whether and how living abroad is linked with enhanced creativity, but they said their findings made a good start. “It may be that those critical months or years of turning cultural bewilderment into concrete understanding may instill not only the ability to ‘think outside the box’ but also the capacity to realise that the box is more than a simple square, more than its simple form, but also a repository of many creative possibilities,” they said.
Maddux, W., & Galinsky, A. (2009). Cultural borders and mental barriers: The relationship between living abroad and creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96 (5), 1047-1061 DOI: 10.1037/a0014861