Multicultural Experiences and Creativity

On Twitter, I followed a link to a blog post provocatively titled Are Expats More Creative? This post mentioned some research suggesting that people with deep experience abroad came back as more creative people–in a way measurable on tests of creativity–but it didn’t cite or link to the actual research. I was able to find a couple of papers by the researcher mentioned in the article, as well as a Youtube interview with him. It’s very interesting stuff, and while the studies are somewhat artificial, they’re very thought-provoking. It may be a good argument for teaching abroad and studying abroad, but the research team found that you can’t just travel abroad or live in an expat enclave/not get out into the culture or learn the language. You really need to have that integrative motivation to benefit.

To my surprise, a recent paper was downloadable for free, although it looked as though it would be behind a journal’s paywall. I don’t know if it’ll work outside of the US, but check the righthand column to see if you can download it.

“When in Rome . . . Learn Why the Romans Do What They Do: How Multicultural Learning Experiences Facilitate Creativity” (Maddux, Adam, and Galinsky)

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36(6) 731–741 © 2010 by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc
Reprints and permission: DOI: 10.1177/0146167210367786
Research suggests that living in and adapting to foreign cultures facilitates creativity. The current research investigated whether one aspect of the adaptation process—multicultural learning—is a critical component of increased creativity. Experiments 1-3 found that recalling a multicultural learning experience: (a) facilitates idea flexibility (e.g., the ability to solve problems in multiple ways), (b) increases awareness of underlying connections and associations, and (c) helps overcome functional fixedness. Importantly, Experiments 2 and 3 specifically demonstrated that functional learning in a multicultural context (i.e., learning about the underlying meaning or function of behaviors in that context) is particularly important for facilitating creativity. Results showed that creativity was enhanced only when participants recalled a functional multicultural learning experience and only when participants had previously lived abroad. Overall, multicultural learning appears to be an important mechanism by which foreign living experiences lead to creative enhancement.

If you can’t access it, there is an earlier article hosted at Northwestern University (PDF): Multicultural Experience Enhances Creativity: The When and How” (Leung, Maddux, Galinsky, and Chiu).

My big question is whether I should (because I already know that I want to), and whether it is worth being away from my partner for a year or more.

What do you think? If you’ve taught or lived overseas, did it make you more creative in small or large ways? Did you “think differently” when you came back?


2 responses to “Multicultural Experiences and Creativity”

  1. Chris Avatar

    I used to write fiction all the time. I used to draw. I used to act. I used to sing. I’ve been in Japan nearly ten years, and I don’t do those things anymore. Maybe because I have to be creative at work so much, I just don’t have the energy for it at home, but I feel I’ve become much less creative in the last decade.

    Then again, I do live a sort of insular life – I don’t enjoy going out and meeting people, and I spend twelve hours a day either working or commuting. So I probably don’t get the cultural mishmash that might be necessary for a creative boost.

    Of course, I don’t have a control to test against. Perhaps if I had stayed in the US I would have experienced the same decline. There’s no way of knowing if it’s my experience abroad or just my inevitable slide into creative mediocrity.

  2. Clarissa Avatar

    Haha, well, I don’t know about inevitable slides or mediocrity…

    They did mention in the research that living somewhere longer wasn’t actually helpful, interestingly. I expect that getting into too much of a pattern isn’t conducive to creativity regardless of where you live. And there is plenty of other research that says you need to have a certain amount of “down time” in order to be creative, and perhaps you’re not getting that.

    Plus people tend to go through more and less creative periods.

    There are other kinds of creative products, too. I’ve been feeling like I’m not creative anymore, because I also used to write and draw, and I don’t really anymore. However, I do have this and my other blog project, and that’s something. I’m hoping a more creative period is coming up, though! I miss writing fiction and drawing.

    Anyway, who knows; it’s all very mysterious and complicated, and I’m not really convinced that creativity (like intelligence) can be studied.

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