Living Abroad Boosts Creativity, Say INSEAD & Kellogg Profs

living-abroad-and-creativity1From Gauguin to Hemingway to Handel, artists of all types have used travel as a way to stimulate the imagination and get their creative juices flowing. But the question is, does living abroad actually make people more creative?  Two business school professors wanted to answer that question with empirical evidence.

William Maddux, the study’s lead author, is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD and a former visiting assistant professor and post-doctoral fellow at the Kellogg School. He and Adam Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management at Kellogg, conducted five studies to test the idea that living abroad and creativity are linked.

In one study, MBA students at the Kellogg School were asked to solve the Duncker candle problem, a classic test of creative insight. In this problem, individuals are 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.

According to the article, having the ability to see objects performing beyond their most obvious functions is a measure of creative insight, and the results showed that the longer students had spent living abroad, the more likely they were to come up with the creative solution.

In another study, also involving Kellogg School students, the researchers used a mock negotiation test involving the sale of a gas station. Here again, negotiators with experience living abroad were more likely to reach a deal that demanded creative insight. In both studies, time spent traveling abroad did not matter; researchers determined that only living abroad was related to creativity.

“This shows us that there is some sort of psychological transformation that needs to occur when people are living in a foreign country in order to enhance creativity. This may happen when people work to adapt themselves to a new culture,” says Galinsky.

Why is this news so important for anyone applying to business school now?

“This research may have something to say about the increasing impact of globalization on the world, a fact that has been hammered home by the recent financial crisis,” says Maddux. “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.”

(image of Adam Galinsky by Nathan Mandell, courtesy of Kellogg School)


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