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Living abroad triggers creativity only in people with a bicultural perspective, study finds

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A vineyard near Nipozzano castle, one of Italy's Frescobaldi family estates, 30 km northeast of Florence.

Ever think that if you could just move abroad you would finally write a novel or design a fabulous fashion line or come up with an idea for a really, really innovative Web-based business (which you could run from your villa in Tuscany)?

Well, moving abroad just might be the impetus you need to get your bottled-up creativity flowing — that is, if you take the right approach to the move, explains psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett in a report this week for the BPS Research Digest.

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, writes Jarrett, has found that “to extract maximum benefit from time in a foreign land, what’s needed is a ‘bicultural’ perspective — the ability to identify with your new home, but all the while continuing to connect with your native country too.”

First, some background: In 2009, as Jarrett explains, psychologists William Maddux and Adam Galinsky conducted a series of five experiments that resulted in what was apparently the first non-anecdotal evidence that living — but not traveling — abroad was associated with enhanced creativity. Participants in that study who had lived in foreign lands were better able to solve several tests of creative ingenuity, including the classic Duncker’s candle problem, even after the researchers controlled for differences in personality and other factors.

But although the researchers found the creativity effect consistent across a variety of types of problem solving, it was not experienced by every ex-pat. That, of course, raised the question: why?

The new study, by Maddux, Galinsky and a third psychologist, Carmit Tadmor, offers a possible answer. It consisted of three separate experiments. The first two involved dozens of MBA students representing 26 different nationalities at business schools in Europe and the United States. Each had lived in one of 31 different countries. Here’s Jarrett’s summary of the findings:

[In the first experiment], those students who’d assumed a bicultural perspective (as opposed to those identifying steadfastly with their original culture only, or those who’d gone entirely native and rejected their home identity) performed better on a lab test of creativity — coming up with new uses for a brick. Moreover, this advantage was mediated by their scores on “integrative complexity” — the thinking style … in which multiple perspectives are appreciated and linked.

[In the second experiment] the biculturals were found to have been more innovative in real life (in terms of setting up new businesses; inventing new products and services). Again, this creative advantage was mediated by the “integrative complexity” of their thinking.

For the third experiment, the researchers surveyed 100 Israeli professionals who had been living in the United States (mostly in Silicon Valley) for an average of nine years. “The biculturals in this sample had enjoyed more promotions and had superior professional reputations (based on the judgment of one of their peers), compared with the participants who identified only with their Israeli heritage or only with their adopted American culture,” Jarrett writes. “Again, this professional advantage was mediated by the biculturals’ ‘integrative complexity’ in their thinking.”

Yes, yes, this study, like all studies, has its limitations, as Jarrett (and the study’s authors) point out. In the third experiment, for example, “it’s possible that professional success encourages a complex thinking style; that a complex thinking style provokes a bicultural approach to life, and so on,” writes Jarrett.

Still, the findings are provocative. So, if you want to get back (finally) to that half-finished novel or screenplay or whatever, perhaps it’s time to search for your passport and take some language lessons. A Tuscany villa may not be so far-fetched an idea, either. Just last week on “House Hunters International,” a Scottish visual artist “found solace in the eccentric medieval town of Guardia Sanframondi, Italy” with the purchase of a gorgeous, albeit slightly rundown, stone house — and all for a mere $15,000.

Dove è il mio passaporto?

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