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To Boost Creativity, Study Abroad

New research confirms that spending a semester studying overseas enhances one’s ability to find innovative solutions.
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Looking to hire someone who will make a creative contribution to your organization? Here’s a tip: When checking applicants’ college transcripts, don’t focus exclusively on their grades or honors.

Take note of whether they spent time studying abroad.

That’s the implication of newly published research, which provides the best evidence yet that studying overseas boosts one’s creativity. A semester spent in Spain or Senegal leads to higher creativity scores on two different tests, according to research conducted by Christine Lee, David Therriault, and Tracy Linderholm of the University of Florida, Gainesville.

“Cultural experiences from living abroad have wide-reaching benefits on students’ creativity, including the facilitation of complex cognitive processes that promote creative thinking,” the researchers write in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

The link between studying abroad and enhanced creativity was first made in a 2009 paper by William Maddux and Adam Galinsky, who found students who spent time overseas were more likely to come up with innovative insights. Like many studies, however, it didn’t quite establish causality. The authors couldn’t say for certain that the experience was transformative, admitting it is possible that people choose to study outside the country are more creative to begin with.

To address that issue, Lee and her colleagues assembled three groups of students from a large university in the American south: 45 who had studied abroad, 45 who were planning to study abroad (but had not yet done so), and 45 who had no interest in studying abroad. All completed two creativity tests.

The first, the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults, measures general creativity. Participants are asked to draw a pair of pictures using specific guidelines, and to discuss “the troubles they might encounter if they could walk on air.” Creativity was judged by the number of answers they came up with, their originality, level of detail, and the flexibility of thinking they demonstrated.

In the second test, which was devised by Lee and her colleagues, participants were asked to generate as many ideas as possible in a series of challenges. This “cultural creativity task” included such problems as “Suppose you wake up tomorrow with a different skin color. What changes might this create in your life?” Creativity was judged by both the number of responses and their originality.

On both tests, the students who had studied abroad “significantly outperformed” members of the other two groups. On the second, those who had spent time studying overseas generated “ideas and solutions that were richer in description, detail and humor” than their classmates—including those who were predisposed to studying abroad, and planned to do so.

According to the researchers, this strongly suggests that “the actual immersion in a foreign culture” boosts one’s creativity. In the words of Lee and her colleagues: “Our findings indicate that studying abroad supports cognitive processes involved in developing innovative solutions.”

So if you want to think outside the box, spend some time outside the country.