Research shows that experience in other countries makes us more flexible, creative, and complex thinkers.
How does studying or working abroad change you? You return with a photo album full of memories and a suitcase full of souvenirs, sure. But you may also come back from your time in another country with an ability to think more complexly and creatively—and you may be professionally more successful as a result.
These are the conclusions of a growing body of research on the effects of study- and work-abroad experiences. For example: A study led by William Maddux, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, found that among students enrolled in an international MBA program, their “multicultural engagement”—the extent to which they adapted to and learned about new cultures—predicted how “integratively complex” their thinking became.
That is, students who adopted an open and adaptive attitude toward foreign cultures became more able to make connections among disparate ideas. The students’ multicultural engagement also predicted the number of job offers they received after the program ended.
More generally, writes Maddux, “People who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity, our research suggests. What’s more, we found that people with this international experience are more likely to create new businesses and products and to be promoted.”
Angela Leung, an associate professor of psychology at Singapore Management University, is another researcher who has investigated the psychological effects of living abroad. She reports that people with more experiences of different cultures are better able to generate creative ideas and make unexpected links among concepts.
Like Maddux, Leung found that the advantages of living abroad accrue to those who are willing to adapt themselves to the ways of their host country: “The serendipitous creative benefits resulting from multicultural experiences,” she writes, “may depend on the extent to which individuals open themselves to foreign cultures.” This openness, she adds, includes a tolerance for ambiguity and open-endedness, a lack of closure and firm answers.
Could it be that people who choose to study or work in other countries are already more inclined to be complex and creative thinkers? David Therriault, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Florida, anticipated this possibility. He and his coauthors administered creative thinking tasks to three groups of undergraduates: students who had studied abroad, students who were planning to study abroad, and students who had not and did not plan to study abroad. The students who had actually studied abroad outperformed the two other groups in creative thinking.
Studying or working in another country can make us better thinkers—more flexible, creative, and complex—if we’re willing to adapt and learn from other cultures. As the title of an article by William Maddux advises: “When in Rome . . . Learn Why the Romans Do What They Do.”
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."