The Frontal Cortex

Creativity and Living Abroad

The Economist summarizes a new study looking at the link between living abroad and increased creativity:

Anecdotal evidence has long held that creativity in artists and writers can be associated with living in foreign parts. Rudyard Kipling, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Gauguin, Samuel Beckett and others spent years dwelling abroad. Now a pair of psychologists has proved that there is indeed a link.

As they report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, William Maddux of INSEAD, a business school in Fontainebleau, France, and Adam Galinsky, of the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, presented 155 American business students and 55 foreign ones studying in America with a test used by psychologists as a measure of creativity. Given a candle, some matches and a box of drawing pins, the students were asked to attach the candle to a cardboard wall so that no wax would drip on the floor when the candle was lit. They found 60% of students who were either living abroad or had spent some time doing so, solved the problem, whereas only 42% of those who had not lived abroad did so.

In order to understand why there might be a link between creativity and living abroad, I think it’s important to look at the Duncker candle problem in detail. A subject is given a cardboard box containing a few thumbtacks, a book of matches and a candle. They are told to attach the candle to a piece of corkboard so that it can burn properly and so that no wax . Nearly 90 percent of people initially pursue the same two strategies, even though neither can succeed. They typically begin by trying to tack the candle directly to the board, which causes the candle wax to shatter. Then, they try melting the candle with the matches so that it sticks to the board. But the wax doesn’t hold and the candle falls to the floor. At this point, most people give up. They tell the scientist that the puzzle is impossible, that it’s a stupid experiment and a waste of time. In most experiments, less than 30 percent of people manage to come up with the solution, which involves attaching the candle to the cardboard box and tacking the cardboard box to the corkboard. Unless people have an insight about the box⎯ it can do more than hold thumbtacks⎯they’ll waste candle after candle. They’ll repeat their failures while they’re waiting for a breakthrough. This is known as the bias of “functional fixedness”.

The scientists argue that living abroad increases our creativity and makes people more likely to solve the candle problem for a variety of reasons:

First, living abroad can allow individuals access to a greater number of novel ideas and concepts, which can then act as inputs for the creative process. Second, living abroad may allow people to approach problems from different perspectives. For example, in some cultures (e.g., China), leaving food on one’s plate is an implicit sign of appreciation, implying that the host has provided enough to eat. In other countries (e.g., the United States) the same behavior may often be taken as an insult, a condemnation of the quality of the meal. Thus, those with experience living in foreign countries should be more likely to recognize that the same form (i.e., surface behavior) may have different functions (i.e., meanings) in different cultures. Third, experiences in foreign cultures can increase the psychological readiness to accept and recruit ideas from unfamiliar sources, thus facilitating the processes of unconscious idea recombination.

Those are all compelling arguments, but I think there are a few caveats worth mentioning. First, there’s the obvious problem of causation and correlation. Perhaps people who are more creative are simply more likely to live abroad. If so, then experiencing a foreign culture isn’t actually a trigger for the imagination. (The scientists attempt to control for this.) Secondly, the scientists conducted their version of the candle task by email. It’s hard to know why the percentages of people solving the problem in this paper were so much higher than other versions of the experiment, but I wouldn’t be shocked if a few of the business students simply googled the terms of the question. (It’s not hard to do.) Finally, I think it’s important to realize that there are many aspects of real-world creativity that aren’t measured by the candle problem or by tests of associative thinking. I’d argue that that “creativity” is actually a catch-all term for a variety of distinct cognitive processes, many of which aren’t manifested as moments of insight. (The brain is the ultimate category buster.) This might help explain why there’s a nagging discrepancy between how people perform on tests of creativity and their creative performance in the real world.

Comments

  1. #1 Jaime
    May 20, 2009

    Maybe people that have lived abroad have had to learn to travel light and are therefore more likely to see packaging materials as useful objects with alternative uses?

  2. #2 jb
    May 20, 2009

    I think students who live abroad are more creative for the same reason that people take vacations abroad or at least go to somewhere unfamiliar. You are ‘getting away from it all’ as is said. It is easier to be present for your experience in a new setting. You are smelling the air, tasting new tastes, feeling a new climate, hearing new sounds, making new friends perhaps, and seeing new sights. You are more apt to be present and relaxed (if you have chosen the right place). Being present and relaxed are conditions that give rise to creative insights.

  3. #3 Thomas Schroeder
    May 20, 2009

    Living aboard forces one to experience many differences. By simply experiencing these differences, one is able to more readily realize and appreciate the fact that there are multiple ways to look at things.

    Without different experiences, it is difficult to think differently. For example, without knowing about the Chinese culture described (i.e. leaving food on the plate as a sign of appreciation), many likely wouldn’t realize its intentions and may even think the opposite (i.e. Chinese, since they don’t clean their plate, likely don’t fully appreciate food).

    New and different experiences remind us and teach us about different ways. This builds confidence that existing alternative solution might be possible and likely even provides useful, new, and flexible “cognitive templates” we can apply to future situations.

    Dr. Elhonon Goldberg brilliantly and clearly explains creativity (from a physiological perspective) and his term, “cognitive templates,” in his excellent and easy-to-read book about the human brain, “The Wisdom Paradox.” If your interested in understanding creativity and the brain, I highly recommend it.

  4. #4 Guy Danielson
    May 21, 2009

    I agree with the above comments. My experience in traveling abroad (east and west) is that there is a consistency of experience. Individuals seem to have considerably less interest in financial matters, getting ahead, business success, accumulation of stuff, multi-tasking, etc. I have yet to meet a single person outside of the US who ask me “what do you do for a living?” Of course, I notice this because I am hoping they will be impressed with my answer. It also seems to me that many are puzzled by the idea that we think our lives here are to be envied.

  5. #5 sinema izle
    May 21, 2009

    Well, the cluster goes together. Previous research has found that Low LI and psychosis (schizophrenia) and creativity are related; previous research has also found that psychotic /some types of creative people have more faith in intuition; and this …
    Well, the cluster goes together. Previous research has found that Low LI and psychosis (schizophrenia) and creativity are related; previous research has also found that psychotic /some types of creative people have more faith in intuition; and this …

  6. #6 Rich
    May 21, 2009

    Yes, this is good blogging! Well done for avoiding the trap many popularisers of science (and many scientists) fall into, which is to not understand or scrutinise the experiments, and then to overextend the conclusions – illegitimately generalising the principle to cases which happen to fall in the same vague categories. Because an experimental condition (e.g. a coloured background) happens to improve performance on a task which could be said to test one construct (e.g. creativity), it is concluded that the general experimental condition (e.g. a colour) improves the general construct.

    In reality the construct is often forced on a heterogenerous group of phenomena… as you suggest here with regard to ‘creativity’, but it happens a lot in brain science, with people trying to locate general processes like ‘impulse control’ in specific areas of the brain.
    In addition, even where the construct may be legitimate, a test rarely measures just one construct. A task labelled the ‘creativity’ task might also measure spatial processing. But only the construct we are interested in is considered.
    Even if the specific conclusions drawn are well-founded, it is rarely a licence for extending those conclusions to new cases.

    Sorry, I am being a little bit cheeky here ;)
    (http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2009/02/the_color_of_creativity.php)

  7. #7 Sammy
    May 22, 2009

    I probably would’ve tried to put the tack on the bottom of the candle and melt the wax around it. I guess that probably wouldn’t work though.

  8. #8 Owen Wiltshire
    May 24, 2009

    Maybe they aren’t more creative, they just have more material to rip off?

  9. #9 McApe
    May 24, 2009

    Conducted via EMAIL?

    Your caveats are very well stated. Would that all articles about such studies included the caveats.

    The conclusions seem to make sense, but that’s exactly when we should be most suspicious, when data seem to be reinforcing our preconceptions.

  10. #10 Deb
    May 25, 2009

    I live abroad and tried the experiment in my brain. After visioning how many tacks it would take to outline the candle so it could rest against the wall without seeping wax downward, I went back over the original description of materials and realised there were probably not enough tacks, but the matchbox could be tacked and could keep the wax from falling to the floor. Maybe it has more to do with creative types “see”king inspiration rather than where they live?

  11. #11 Michael
    May 27, 2009

    Interesting! Please type this for another topic. Regards to the author

  12. #12 MAYARI
    May 29, 2009

    Interesting blogpost. I agree that people who travel have more experience i.e. have learnt more different things which again benefits the understandings where you get your inspirations from for more creative acts.
    I would argue that creative people tend to be more curious people, more willing to take risks, they tend to have more flexible minds thus they are more likely to go and live somewhere else. But then… what’s creative? I don’t think such a candle test can be taken as an indicator for creativity. Further research would be interesting.

  13. #13 nasza-gwara
    June 12, 2009

    Really, very interesting topic. If possible, please more information. This is one of the better blogs that I read.

  14. #14 fifa
    June 22, 2009

    Really, very interesting topic. If possible, please more information. This is one of the better blogs that I read.

  15. Yes, I did not expect such a topic. But seems to be interesting. Please read comments. Yours

  16. #16 wow help
    July 22, 2009

    Yes, this is good blogging! Well done for avoiding the trap many popularisers of science (and many scientists) fall into, which is to not understand or scrutinise the experiments, and then to overextend the conclusions – illegitimately generalising the principle to cases which happen to fall in the same vague categories. Because an experimental condition (e.g. a coloured background) happens to improve performance on a task which could be said to test one construct (e.g. creativity), it is concluded that the general experimental condition (e.g. a colour) improves the general construct.nice post. thanks

  17. #17 Portal Prawny
    July 31, 2009

    Yes, I did not expect such a topic. But seems to be interesting. Please read comments. Yours

  18. Yes, I did not expect such a topic. But seems to be interesting. Please read comments. Yours

  19. #19 Boszkowo
    August 12, 2009

    Really, very interesting topic. If possible, please more information. This is one of the better blogs that I read.

  20. Interesting! Please type this for another topic. Regards to the author

  21. Yes, I did not expect such a topic. But seems to be interesting. Please read comments. Yours

  22. #22 Monitory podsufitowe
    September 22, 2009

    I am very interested in this topic. You could write something more? Warm greetings to the author and all readers.

  23. #23 betsson
    October 23, 2009

    Interesting blogpost

  24. #24 Egipt
    July 28, 2010

    I was living for 4 years in Holland (I was Born in Poland )
    And It was my best years in my graphic design expirience .
    So in my opinion living abroad increase creativity

    Ps. Sorry for my English :/

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