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To Be More Creative, Try Living Abroad

Adapting to a new culture seems to give people an inventive edge

FRIDAY, May 22 (HealthDay News) -- Students living abroad may get more out of the experience than a chance to visit cool museums and try new foods. New research suggests that living abroad sparks creativity.

Students who had lived abroad were better able to solve tests of creative insight, according to a study in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"Gaining experience in foreign cultures has long been a classic prescription for artists interested in stimulating their imaginations or honing their crafts. But does living abroad actually make people more creative?" asked lead author William Maddux, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, a business school with campuses in France and Singapore. "It's a long-standing question that we feel we've been able to begin answering through this research."

In one experiment, MBA students from Northwestern University were presented with what's known as the Duncker candle problem, a test of creative insight in which students are asked to figure out how to attach a candle to a cardboard wall using a candle, a pack of matches and a box of tacks.

The correct solution involves using the box of tacks as a candleholder, considered a measure of creative insight because the puzzle solver must be able to see objects performing different functions from what is typical.

The longer students had spent living abroad, the more likely they were to come up with the creative solution, the study found.

In a second test, researchers used a mock negotiation involving the sale of a gas station in which the minimum price the seller was willing to accept was higher than the buyer's maximum. A deal could only be reached through a creative agreement that satisfied both parties' interests.

The study found that negotiators with experience living abroad were more likely to reach a deal that demanded creative insight.

Living abroad, not just traveling abroad, was key, the study found. And the more students had adapted themselves to the foreign culture, the more likely they were to solve the Duncker candle task.

"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," said the study's co-author Adam Galinsky from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. "This may happen when people work to adapt themselves to a new culture."

In a final test, the researchers asked a group of students to recall time spent living abroad or adapting to a new culture. Another group was asked to write about other experiences, such as going to the supermarket, learning a new sport or simply observing but not adapting to a new culture.

The results showed that priming students to mentally recreate their past experiences living abroad or adapting to a new culture caused them, at least temporarily, to be more creative. For example, these students drew space aliens and solved word games more creatively than students primed to recall other experiences.

More information

The Web site has more on creativity.

-- Jennifer Thomas

SOURCE: American Psychological Association, news release, April 2009

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