Living Overseas Boosts Creativity

It has long been said that travel broadens the mind. That has never been tested empirically until recently. And the result is that travel alone is not sufficient to boost creativity. Living overseas, however, has been demonstrated to improve creative thinking ability! So, if you want a quick route to enhanced creativity, leave the country!

William W. Maddux, of INSEAD, and Adam D. Galinsky  of Northwestern University ran a series of experiments designed to measure creativity and identify correlations between levels of creativity and living abroad. They have recently published their results in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Maddux's and Galinsky's experiments made use of the most readily available guinea pigs  to University researchers: graduate students. Fortunately, in America there are a lot of foreign graduate students as well as a number of American students who have lived abroad.

Study 1

In the first study, 205 students were shown a picture of several objects on a table: a candle, a pack of matches and a box of tacks, all of which were next to a cardboard wall. They were asked to figure out how to attach the candle to the wall in such a way that when lit, wax would not fall onto the table or the floor.

Of those students who had lived abroad, 60% were able to work out the solution. Only 42% of those who had never lived abroad solved the puzzle. Moreover, the longer a student had been overseas, the more likely she was to work out the puzzle.

The solution, incidentally, is to stick the empty box of tacks to the wall using some of the tacks.

Where's the Creativity?

The second study had two aims. Firstly it aimed to confirm the findings of Study 1 using a very different lateral thinking puzzle. The second aim was to control for personality variables that might be related to creativity and living abroad. Specifically, the researchers were worried that creative people might be more inclined to live abroad than non-creative people. Hence, the results would simply demonstrate that creative people are more creative than non-creative people, which would hardly be surprising.

Using standard measures of personality traits associated with creative people, Maddux and Galinsky were able to account for natural creativity in the second and subsequent studies. However, they note: “Although controlling for such variables cannot rule out the possibility that creative people are more likely to live abroad, it can give us more confidence that there is a unique relationship between living abroad and creativity.”

Study 2

The second study involved a role play exercise of negotiating the sale of a petrol station. A group of 108 MBA students were divided into teams of two. Each person was given confidential instruction and time to think about it. However, they were prohibited from discussing their instructions with anyone else, particularly their role- play partners.

 One person in the role-play was the seller of a Texoil petrol station. She had decided to take a couple years off to travel the world and so needed to sell the station. Once she returned to America, she planned to go back to work. She had a sales price and a maximum price, below which she would not go.

The buyer did not intend to run the place herself and would need managers to oversee the actual operations of the petrol station. She also had a price limit above which she would not pay.

Not surprisingly, the seller's lowest price was higher than the buyer's maximum price.

The teams performed their role plays and, of those teams in which both participants had lived abroad, 70% reached a deal in which the buyer paid a price below the seller's lowest offer, but  also offered the seller a management job upon her return to America. Of those teams in which neither participant had lived abroad, none were able to reach a deal!


Both of these studies (and others performed by the researchers) showed there was no correlation between travelling abroad and creativity. The only correlation they found was with students who had lived abroad and were creative.  In reviewing their results, Maddux and Galinsky hypothesised that adaptation may be a key mechanism behind this link. “Because culture is such a pervasive force, impacting and shaping every aspect of one's life, adapting oneself to a new culture – learning how to behave and think in different way [sic] – may make individuals chronically aware of multiple perspectives and approaches when dealing with mundane and novel situations and, thus, may be associated with increased creativity.”

To test this hypothesis,  Maddux and Galinsky and designed an experiment based on an unstructured creative generation task. Specifically, they asked students to draw an alien. They “predicted that people primed with cognitions about adapting to a new culture would bee more likely to create alien creatures that were very different to those found on Earth.” And the results do indeed demonstrate this! You can see sample drawings in their paper (link to PDF of paper at end of this article).

Permanent or Temporary Creativity Boost

The authors acknowledge that their experiments do not demonstrate that living overseas causes a permanent creative boost. It only demonstrates a correlation between living abroad and enhanced creativity. Hence it is possible that the effect is temporary in nature. Further testing will be necessary to explore this issue.

I believe it would also be interesting to see if similar correlations exist for various kinds of expatriates. Having lived in several countries, I've observed and experienced various kinds of expat groups. Some essentially form closed communities in which members work, live and socialise primarily with others from their own culture. Overseas military bases are primary examples of this.

Lessons to Be Learned

For businesses and other organisations with international offices, sending as many people as possible to live and work abroad would be an excellent mechanism for increasing the creativity of individuals within the organisation. More importantly, this creativity should be harnessed by the organisation, such as through putting such people in charge of projects in which a high level of creativity is desirable. Managing skunkwork projects ( ) is one such task that comes to mind.

Companies which do not have international offices would do well to hire foreigners to positions which require, or would benefit from, strong creative skills.

And if you have an opportunity to live abroad – take it! Not only can you expect to become more creative, but living in various cultures is a rich and rewarding experience.

References: “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity” (2009) by  William W. Maddux and Adam D. Galinsky; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; Vol 96, No 5, pp 1047- 1061). Download as PDF from



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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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My other web projects 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity - possibly useful things I have learned over the years. reflections on international living and travel. - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey