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Why Traveling Abroad Makes Us More Creative

Originally posted on BigThink.com

Like many college students, I took a semester abroad. I spent the first half of my junior year in London taking classes at UCL, exploring the museums, and learning the difference between two pints, two pounds and two pence. After a few lovely months on the “other” side of the pond I returned home feeling cultured. Of course, the difference between London and New York (where I went to school) was small. But the UK nonetheless influenced me to see the world a bit differently.

Such are the benefits of travel. A few weeks or months in a foreign country won’t necessarily transform our lives, but wandering the streets of Helsinki, Harare or Hong Kong leaves a residue on our minds. Returning home, this cultural footprint is hard to ignore and difficult to identify. Something’s different, but what?

Given the importance of traveling abroad, it’s no surprise that psychologists study how these experiences affect our cognition. Do they make us smarter or more open-minded? Does learning a foreign language boost IQ? Is it a good idea to live outside of your native country for a while? Consider a study conducted by Lile Jia and his colleagues at Indiana University.

In one experiment the team of psychologists asked participants to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. They explained that the task was created by either Indiana University students studying in Greece (distant condition) or by Indiana University students studying in Indiana (near condition). This small ripple turned out to have large effects: participants in the distant condition generated more modes of transportation and were more original with their ideas.

The second experiment demonstrated similar results. The team asked participants to solve three insight problems. Here’s an example of one:

A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?

Like the first experiment, Jia and his team told participants that the questions came from either a research institute “around 2,000 miles away” or in Indiana “2 miles away.” (In a control condition they did not reference a location). Again, the researchers found that participants in the distant condition generated more solutions than participants in the other two conditions.

A ScientificAmerican.com article on Jia’s study summarizes the results this way:

This pair of studies suggests that even minimal cues of psychological distance can make us more creative. Although the geographical origin of the various tasks was completely irrelevant – it shouldn’t have mattered where the questions came from – simply telling subjects that they came from somewhere far away led to more creative thoughts.

In Imagine, Jonah Lehrer parallels this research with a 2009 study out of the Kellogg School of Management and INSEAD. The researchers “reported that students who lived abroad for an extended period were significantly more likely to solve a difficult creativity problem than students who had never lived outside of their birth country.” Lehrer concludes that, “the experience of another culture endows the traveler with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier for him or her to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings.”

It’s unclear if this finding is causal or correlative – students who go abroad might be endowed with an open and creative mindset in the first place – but the point remains: diverse experiences are good for creativity because they influence us to look at problems from multiple points of view.

This brings me to a brand new study out of Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences conducted by professor Nira Liberman and a team of her students. They wanted to see if “expansive thinking” improves the creative output of 6 to 9 year olds.

Their experiment was straightforward. The researchers gave the kids a series of photographs displaying nearby objects (a pencil on a desk) and distant objects (a picture of the Milky Way galaxy). Here’s the important part: half of the kids started with the nearby objects and progressed to more distant ones (expansive mindset); the other half saw the photos in reverse order (contractive mindset).

Next, the kids tackled several creativity tests in which they were given an object and asked to name as many different uses for it. The tasks were designed to test “outside of the box” thinking. For example, if the object was a paper clip, an unimaginative response would be to hold paper. More creative answers, on the other hand, would be “a bookmark,” or “Christmas tree decorations.”

Liberman found that kids in the expansive mindset scored significantly better on all measures of creativity. They came up a greater number of uses and more creative uses for the objects. Why? According to Liberman, “spatial distance, as opposed to spatial proximity, was clearly shown to enhance creative performance…. [and] psychological distance can help to foster creativity because it encourages us to think abstractly.”

Two important findings come out of Liberman’s research. The first is that creativity can be taught. David Kelley makes this point precisely in a recent TED talk. Drawing upon personal experience and years of research, Kelley puts it this way:

Don’t let people divide the world into the creative and the non-creative like it’s some God given thing…. People [should] realize they are naturally creative and… these people should let their ideas fly. They should achieve… self-efficacy, [meaning they] should do what they set out to do… And reach a place of creative confidence.

The second point brings me back to London. One way to kill creativity and abstract thinking – two cognitive attributes vital in the 21st century economy – is to maintain a “here and now” perspective. London steered me away from this mindset; it influenced me to adopt a more open-minded perspective.

To be sure, my leisurely strolls through the British Museum didn’t make me smarter, and by no means was I “culturally transformed” upon hearing that ‘soccer’ was actually ‘football’. But it’s remarkable what you can learn by sitting in an English pub for a few hours. For starters, pints are two pounds, not two pence.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I took two months off after college, using a refund I got from a class for which I’d registered that proved unnecessary for graduation. Together, my best friend and I traveled around Europe via train using our Youth Eurail Passes, staying in youth hostels, and conversing with a lot of young people from all over the world. We visited art museums, ate picnic lunches in parks, explored the country side via train and bike and lounged on the beaches. I think it was the best way to finish my education. I got a sense of how people in Europe live and see the world and I also learned that the U.S. is NOT the center of the world and that the way we do things is not necessarily the only one right way to do things. After returning to the States (to get a job, eventually get married, start a career, have a child, etc.) I retain my love of French food, literature, and museums. I developed a long term love for the French and for Paris and saved up enough money to take my husband there ten years later. Once there he said, “I get it…the French think they are superior to everyone else because THEY ARE!” (he had not expected to like Paris but LOVED it.) I think it helped that I taught him enough French to get around. The Parisians are very kind if you try to speak their language, even if you do so badly.

    A lasting change: I also always bring canvas bags with me to every grocery store, as the Parisians did. It made so much sense. When I returned to the States I found that my eyes had been opened to the huge amount of waste here…in the name of packaging products to make them flashier and more appealing on the shelf, and in the name of convenience to the consumer we add tons of shiny cardboard, shrink wrap, etc. to landfills in which they do not break down. People think that by choosing “paper” over “plastic” at the market they are making a “green” choice. However, paper bags don’t break down in landfills that are so full the garbage gets no sunlight to help it decompose.

    Interestingly, I asked everyone I met on my travels in 1988 what their favorite country to visit had been and overwhelmingly the answer was “Tibet.” When I asked why, they said, “Because although the people there are very poor, they are very happy.” Given the horrific oppression China has committed there in recent years I wonder if tourists to Tibet would still say the same thing.

    Last comment for now: when I asked young people from the U.K. what they planned on doing for work when they returned from their travels they replied, “We don’t know. In our country if you see an ad in the paper for a job opening it is already taken.” I hope that things have improved in the British economy now, though my current reading of the news is not encouraging. I was lucky enough to be able to look in the “want” ads and get a job in New York City right away.

    June 1, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Thanks so much for your wonderful comment. It sounded like the post resonated with you. I’m glad. Similarly, your thoughts resonated with mine.

      I would add that I’ve always wanted to go to Tibet. I’ve heard similar comments – it’s seems like a really interesting place.

      June 2, 2012
  2. A serious question (because I know I can be a bit acerbic at times!): can you recommend some reading that makes a convincing case for the connection between highly specified lateral thinking tasks (like thinking of uses for objects or solving word puzzles) and the far, far broader popular conceptions of “creativity” (as it relates to writing, music, science, product design, etc.)? As yet, I fail to see how the two are connected, and it seems that the connection so often drawn is heavily dependent on quite antiquated assumptions about the nature of creativity in its broad sense, but this may just be because I haven’t read the right scientific literature that demonstrates otherwise.

    June 1, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      You’re right to be skeptical about the connection between results of studies that test “lateral thinking” and creativity. Remember, creativity is a catch-term for a number of distinct cognitive process. So I would say that it’s hard to say that one distinct cognitive trait causes a certain type of “creative” behavior. In terms of scientific studies you request nothing is coming to mind, except for maybe the work of Mark Beeman and John Konious. I’ll keep my ear out though.

      June 2, 2012
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    September 20, 2014

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