Boost creativity by living abroad

August, 2012

Support for previous findings associating study abroad with increased creativity comes from a study comparing those who studied abroad with those who plan to, and those with no such intentions.

A couple of years ago I briefly reported on a finding that students who had lived abroad demonstrated greater creativity, if they first recalled a multicultural learning experience from their life abroad. A new study examines this connection, in particular investigating the as-yet-unanswered question of whether students who studied abroad were already more creative than those who didn’t.

The study involved 135 students of whom 45 had studied abroad, 45 were planning to do so, and 45 had not and were not planning to. The groups did not differ significantly in terms of age, gender, or ethnicity, and data from a sample (a third of each group) revealed no differences in terms of GPA and SAT scores. Creativity was assessed using the domain-general Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA) and the culture-specific Cultural Creativity Task (CCT).

Those in the Study Abroad group scored significantly higher on the CCT than those in the other two groups, who didn’t differ from each other. Additionally, those in the Study Abroad group scored significantly higher on the ATTA than those in the No Plan to Study group (those in the Plan to Study group were not significantly different from either of the other two groups).

It seems clear, then, that the findings of earlier studies are indeed ‘real’ (students who study abroad really do come home more creative than before they went) and not a product of self-selection (more creative students are more likely to travel). But the difference between the two creativity tests needs some explanation.

There is a burning issue in creativity research: is creativity a domain-general attribute, or a domain-specific one? This is not a pedantic, theoretical question! If you’re ‘creative’, does that mean you’re equally creative in all areas, or just in specific areas? Or (more likely, it seems to me) is creativity both domain-general and domain-specific?

The ATTA, as I said, measures general creativity. It does so through three 3-minute tasks: identify the troubles you might have if you could walk on air or fly (without benefit of vehicle); draw a picture using two incomplete figures (provided); draw pictures using 9 identical isosceles triangles.

The CCT has five 3-minute tasks that target culturally relevant knowledge and skills. in each case, participants are asked to give as many ideas as they can in response to a specific scenario: getting more foreign tourists to visit America; the changes that would result if you woke up with different skin color; demonstrating high social status; developing new dishes using exotic ingredients; creating a product with universal appeal.

The findings would seem to support the idea that creativity has both general and specific elements. The greater effect of studying abroad on CCT scores (compared to ATTA scores) also seem to me to be consistent with the finding I cited at the beginning — that, to get the benefit, students needed to be reminded of their multicultural experiences. In this case, the CCT scenarios would seem to play that role.

It does of course make complete sense that living abroad would have positive benefits for creativity. Creativity is about not following accustomed ruts in one’s thoughts. Those ruts are not simply generated within our own mind (as we get older, our ruts tend to get deeper), but are products of our relationship with our society. Think of clichés. The more we follow along with accustomed language and thought patterns of our group, the less creative we will be. One way to break (or at least broaden) this, is to widen our groups — by, for example, mixing in diverse circles, or by living abroad.

Interestingly, another recent study (pdf link to paper) reckons that social rejection (generally regarded as a bad thing) can make some people more creative — if they’re independent types who take pride in being different from others.


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, n/a–n/a. doi:10.1002/acp.2857

Kim, S. H., Vincent, L. C., & Goncalo, J. A. (In press). Outside Advantage: Can Social Rejection Fuel Creative Thought? Journal of Experimental Psychology. General.

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