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.