Is living abroad a catalyst for success? Researchers believe so

by Rachel Ogbu

A much discussed study published  in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that living outside one’s country increases chances of accomplishing life goals.

Dr. Carmit Tadmor of Tel Aviv University’s Recanati School of Business as the lead researcher and professors from INSEAD, the Kellogg School, discovered that the simple act of living abroad is not enough to boost creative and professional success. Instead, the potential benefits of extended international travel depend on the ability to simultaneously identify with both home and host cultures, which the researchers call ‘biculturalism’. They posit that identifying with two cultures simultaneously fosters a more complex thinking style that views things from multiple perspectives and forges conceptual links among them.

Tadmor says living abroad helps to hone creative abilities, but not all individuals who have lived abroad derive an equal benefit from such experience.

“Unlike patterns of cultural identification in which individuals endorse only one of the two cultures, bicultural identification requires individuals to take into account and combine the perspectives of both old and new cultures,” Tadmor says. “Over time, this information processing capability, or ‘integrative complexity,’ becomes a tool for making sense of the world and will help individuals perform better in both creative and professional domains.”

The researchers conducted three experiments to determine the impact of biculturalism on individuals living abroad. In the first, 78 MBA students, comprising 26 different nationalities at a European business school, were asked to complete a series of tasks, including a standard creativity task that asked for as many uses for a brick as possible within a two-minute time limit.

The second experiment with a group of 54 MBA students, comprising 18 nationalities at an American business school, were asked to describe the new businesses, products, and processes they had invented during their careers. All of the study participants had lived abroad for a period of time.

The researchers say the studies found that those who identified with both their host culture and their home culture consistently demonstrated more fluency, flexibility, novelty and innovation.

The third and final experiment extended the idea, exploring whether the biculturals’ advantages also gave them an advantage in the workplace. In this study, 100 Israelis, living and working mainly in California’s Silicon Valley, were interviewed by the researchers. They found that Israelis who identified with both their home and host cultures enjoyed higher promotion rates and more positive reputations among their colleagues.

According to the researchers, across all three studies, bicultural individuals ranked higher on integrative complexity tests than the other participants and this drove their success.

Tadmor notes that the road to biculturalism is laden with internal conflicts, in which two cultural identities struggle to coexist. He adds that it is much easier to surround oneself with one’s community than to straddle two separate worlds. But by-passing the conflict means giving up the best benefits while integrative complexity, which is responsible for creative and professional success, evolves through the repetitive resolution of these internal conflicts.

“It is clear that becoming a true bicultural is not easy, but it holds the key to translating foreign experiences abroad into a tangible toolbox that bolsters one’s creative ability and professional skill to the highest level,” he says.

In another study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, July 2010, researchers found that experiencing different cultures – other than one’s own – enhances creativity. In a global world, where more people are able to acquire multicultural experiences than ever before, the researchers seem convinced that living abroad can be even more beneficial than previously thought.

The researchers, led by an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD – a business school with campuses in France and Singapore – William Maddux, conducted three studies which looked at students who had lived abroad and those who hadn’t, testing them on different aspects of creativity.

Relative to a control group, which had not experienced a different culture, participants in the different culture group provided more evidence of creativity in various standard tests of the trait. Those results suggest that multicultural learning is a critical component of the adaptation process, acting as catalyst for creativity.

The researchers say the key to the enhanced creativity was related to the students’ open-minded approach in adapting to the new culture.

The researchers say, “Given the literature on structural changes in the brain that occur during intensive learning experiences, it would be worthwhile to explore whether neurological changes occur within the creative process during intensive foreign culture experiences. That can help paint a more nuanced picture of how foreign culture experiences may not only enhance creativity but also, perhaps literally, as well as figuratively, broaden the mind.”

A 2009 report also gives credence to the claim that living in another country can be a cherished and rewarding experience, as it suggests that the experience might also help expand minds. The research, published by the American Psychological Association, was the first of its kind to look at the link between living abroad and creativity.

It was also conducted by Maddux and his research team. He says, “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? It’s a longstanding question that we feel we’ve been able to begin answering through this research.”

In one of the studies, the researchers used Master of Business Administration students. The students from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Illinois – where one of the researchers, Adam Galinsky works – were asked to solve the Duncker candle problem, a classic test of creative insight.

The individuals were 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 the floor. The correct solution involves using the box of tacks as a candleholder – one should empty the box of tacks and then tack it to the wall placing the candle inside.

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.


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