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Researchers William Maddux and Adam Galinsky used the classic Duncker candle problem to test for creativity. The task was to find a way to attach the candle to the wall and light it so that wax will not drip on the floor.

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Researcher William Maddux explains how to solve the Duncker candle problem and why it is used to measure creativity.

Living abroad may boost creativity, a new study shows

by Hans Villarica
Oct 06, 2009

Maybe a gap year spent living abroad wouldn’t be such a waste of time after all.

Organizational behavior specialists Adam Galinsky and William Maddux reported in a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that living in a foreign country may enhance creativity.

“Those that live abroad, especially those that adapt, are more likely to be more creative when they come back,” said Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “The experience changes the way they look at the world.”

Maddux, a professor at INSEAD, a business school in Fontainebleau, France, notes that this experience should involve integration into a foreign culture, not just exposure to one.

“There was something about having lived abroad, not necessarily just going abroad, that affected creativity,” said Maddux. “We never found a positive or significant correlation between time traveled abroad and creativity.”

The research is the first to conduct experiments to study the link between time spent abroad and creativity. Maddux and Galinsky conducted five experiments in the course of three years with over 600 test subjects.

In the first two experiments, respondents were tested for creative insight, or the ability to find hidden and novel solutions that are not immediately apparent. The Duncker candle problem, a test for creativity created by psychologist Karl Duncker in 1945, is administered in the first experiment. Subjects are given a candle and a box of  tacks, and then asked to find a way to attach the candle to the wall, so that when it is lit, wax will not drip on the floor.

The second experiment, a one-on-one negotiation, required participants to find a mutually acceptable deal on the sale of a gas station that was not based solely on price, the only presented negotiation issue. Those who introduced other negotiating variables, such as an offer for future employment, were considered creative.

From these initial experiments, Galinsky observed that “the more experience people have living abroad, the more likely they are to solve these problems.”

To test the cause of this relationship, Maddux and Galinsky conducted further experiments that included a technique called priming, wherein respondents are prompted to recall certain experiences before doing a creative task.  

Results were consistent with previous tests in that those who were prompted to recall experiences of living in or adapting to a foreign culture demonstrated greater creativity. In contrast, those prompted to recall experiences of simply observing behavior or mundane events, such as grocery shopping, showed less creativity.

The results of the experiments suggested that the degree to which individuals adapt to a new culture may be the cause for the improvement in creativity.

“If you just go and you stay isolated from the foreign culture and you don’t change the way you think and behave, you’re probably not going to become more creative,” Maddux said.

Galinsky said the consistency of the results across all of the experiments indicate a robust relationship between living abroad and creativity.

Chi-Yue Chiu, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign agreed.

“A unique strength of this research is the use of multiple methods and multiple dependent measures to assess the research hypothesis,” he said. “The convergent results render the conclusion particularly convincing.”

The study, however, is not without limitations. Maddux and Galinksy said the study does not cover the degree to which creativity is improved or for how long the improvement lasts.

Still, Steven Heine, an expert on cultural psychology, notes some practical applications of the study.

“The research suggests that there may be real value in people obtaining multicultural experiences,” he said. “Companies may indeed benefit by sending their workers abroad. They may get a more creative worker in return.”