Traveling for Creativity

Want to be more creative? Take a trip! Maybe. When I think about “highlight memories” of my life thus far, many of them revolve around travel. When I was a teenager, I had the chance to live in Luxembourg for a summer, speaking fractured French (and a little Luxembourgish!) and having the time of my young life. Since then, from our early-married drive cross-country with an un-air conditioned car and a tent, to my recent trip to China, traveling has allowed me to meet new people, struggle with new languages, and see sights I never imagined I’d view in person. But did any of it make me more creative?

There is some research suggesting that studying and living abroad can enhance creativity. In 2009, Maddux and Galinsky published a series of studies in which living abroad, and particularly, thinking about the kinds of adaptations that were necessary living abroad, was associated with higher scores on a number of problem solving tasks. More recently, Lee, Therriault, and Linderholm (2012) found that college students who had studied abroad did better on measures of creativity than students who planned to study abroad but hadn’t done so yet.

There is some logic to these results. Living in another culture provides one experience after another in which you have the chance to look from another perspective, be open to new experiences, observe in new ways, and deal with confusion and ambiguity. But the ways these experiences affect creativity are not clear.

Upcoming research from Galinsky and colleagues sheds some light. Simply living in another country is not sufficient. Plenty of people live abroad, but remained sheltered in a cocoon of familiar people and experiences, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in Prague or Beijing, and shaking their heads at the “strangeness” of whatever new experiences surround them. In order to have living abroad change your perception, you need to be able to envision more than one way of experiencing the world. The researchers call this “integrative complexity,” but we can also call it “letting the new culture become a part of you.” Allowing another culture to influence your ways of perceiving the world doesn’t just change your viewpoint–it seems to change your creative potential as well.

So what does this mean for those of us who don’t have a chance to move to another country for a semester or a year? Seek out new perspectives. Think about how you can develop relationships beyond tourist-gawking with individuals from different cultures, at home or abroad.

If you get to travel, at least for a little while, try to get away from the traditional route and talk to some people. Even brief encounters can make a difference. Through the kindness of a colleague, I was able to meet a professor in Prague who took my husband and me on a tour of her city. Listening to her stories of the coming—and going—of the communist rule, and what it meant in her life, has changed my understanding of that part of the world. Did her culture “enter me?” No, of course not. Our time together was too brief. But at least I caught a glimpse of it.

When you are at home, look around your community. Are there students from abroad you can come to know? What are the cultures in your midst that are different from your own? Community centers, museums, and fairs all can help us taste a bit of another way of looking at the world. Of course none of this will change us in the same way a long-term experience in another culture will. But if we approach each experience with the intent to understand, it can’t hurt.

Lee, C. S., Therriault, D. J., & Linderholm, T. (2012). On the cognitive benefits of cultural experience: Exploring the relationship between studying abroad and creative thinking. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 26: 768778.

Published online 19 July 2012 in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/acp.2857

Maddux, W. W. & Galinsky, A. D. (2009). Cultural borders and mental barriers: The relationship between living abroad and creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29, 5, 1047-1061.

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