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INSEAD/Kellogg Research Reveals Link Between Study Abroad and Creativity

According to recent research from INSEAD and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the experience of living outside your home country and adapting to a new culture may enhance creative thinking.

From El Greco to Ernest Hemingway, many artists have sought out experience in a foreign culture as a means of stimulating their imaginations and enhancing their work. But does living abroad really stimulate creativity? “It’s a longstanding question that we feel we’ve been able to begin answering through this research,” said the study’s lead author, INSEAD assistant professor of organizational behavior William Maddux, in a statement.

Together, Maddux and Kellogg’s Adam Galinsky conducted five studies to test the links between the two. Their findings were published in the May issue of the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Using MBA students as test subjects, two of the studies presented problems of logic and negotiation designed to test creative insight. The results of both studies showed that the longer students had spent living abroad, the more likely they were to come up with the most creative solution. In both instances, time spent traveling abroad didn’t impact creativity the way living abroad did.

After conducting the five test studies, Maddux and Galinsky then ran a follow-up study to better understand the link. With a group of MBA students at INSEAD, they determined that those students who had adapted themselves to the foreign cultures when they lived abroad were those most likely to solve the classic creative insight challenge.

But while the studies did show a strong link between living abroad and greater creativity, they don’t prove that adapting to a new culture actually causes increased creativity. “We just couldn’t randomly assign people to live abroad while others stay in their own country,” Maddux said in a statement.

So instead, they tried a technique called “priming” to try to understand what causes someone to be creative. In two experiments, they primed students at the Sorbonne to mentally recreate their past experiences living abroad and then measured whether doing so caused them to be more creative, at least temporarily. Another group of students were asked instead to recall experiences that didn’t involve adapting to another culture, such as going to the supermarket.

The results revealed that students primed to recreate past experiences of living abroad then drew space aliens and solved word games more creatively than those primed to recreate domestic experiences.

According to Maddux, the research findings could have something to show about the increasing impact of globalization on the world. “Knowing that experiences abroad are critical for creative output makes study abroad programs and job assignments in other countries that much more important, especially for people and companies that put a premium on creativity and innovation to stay competitive,” he said.

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