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Mi Amor, You Brighten My World—and Stimulate My Creativity

Developing a close emotional relationship with someone from another culture can foster creative thinking.
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(Photo: Crew/Unsplash)

(Photo: Crew/Unsplash)

Think back for a moment to that semester you spent abroad. Remember the affair you had with that charming Parisian? Do you regret neglecting your studies to concentrate on that delightful diversion?

Well, don’t. Newly published research suggests your experience was more enriching than you may have realized.

It reports “close intercultural romantic relationships” stimulate creativity — even after the affair is over.

This finding offers “a compelling reason for people to go out of their comfort zone to develop meaningful and long-lasting relationships with individuals from other cultures,” a research team led by Jackson Lu of Columbia University writes in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Lu and his colleagues offer evidence of this dynamic in four studies. The first featured 109 MBA students who took a series of creativity tests at the beginning and end of their 10-month program.

These included the well-known Alternative Uses Task, in which they were instructed to come up with creative uses for common items such as a brick or a box; and the Remote Associates Test, which presents them with three words (such as manner, round, and tennis) and asks them to come up with a fourth that fits them all (table).

During the second round, the students were also asked whether they had dated anyone “from a culture other than your own while at the program.” A “yes” answer was associated with a rise in creativity over the 10 months.

Another study, conducted online, featured 163 people, all of whom lived in the United States. Each provided a history of their romantic relationships, including “the number of individuals they had dated from foreign countries,” and “the duration of each intercultural relationship.”

They also completed a creativity task designed to mirror a situation they could easily find in the business world: They were asked to come up with three one-word names for three categories of products. Creativity was measured by the number of times they avoided “common endings,” such as words ending in “na” or “ni” for pasta products.

“Creativity was not significantly predicted by the number of intercultural relationships,” the researchers report, but rather by “the duration of intercultural dating.”

This makes sense: As Lu and his colleagues note, “A person who is committed to a long-term intercultural romantic relationship has more opportunities and incentives to learn about another culture.”

Another study showed that sex is not required for this dynamic to play out: Just the sort of emotional closeness that leads to curiosity and attentiveness. “The more contact two intercultural friends have with each other,” the researchers write, “the more chances they have to assimilate and draw upon ideas from both cultures to synthesize novel and useful insights.”

A process that can enrich our lives, help our careers, and ultimately boost the economy. Close off our borders? This research provides another reason why that’s a terrible idea.