Does travel make you smarter?*

January 24, 2010

Yes, according to some fascinating recent work from INSEAD and Northwestern University. Multicultural experience helps creativity. Major cultural experiences, like travelling or living abroad, can have a big impact on our ability to think innovatively. But so too might working in a diverse firm, or living in a cosmopolitan city.

For me these findings are a great relief, as they provide scientific justification for spending three months in California. (In fact I first read about this in the San Francisco Panorama, the latest from McSweeney’s). But these ideas also plug into some current policy debates in interesting ways.

William Maddux, Adam Galinsky and colleagues have done a series of studies looking at the ‘multicultural => creativity link’. In this American Psychologist paper, they distinguish between two types of multicultural encounter, ‘big M’ experiences (like living abroad) and ‘little m’ (like being employed in a global firm).

In this second paper, they test the specific impact of living abroad on various creative behaviours. ‘Creativity’ is defined pretty broadly, encompassing problem-solving, negotiation and generating new ideas.

They find that individuals who’ve lived abroad tend to be more creative than those who haven’t. International living has a causal effect on problem solving: people tend to draw on their experiences in solving problems. Importantly, the ‘big M’ effect is larger for people who threw themselves into their trip, engaging with local culture and citizens.
So what’s going on here? Maddux and co argue that a principle function of culture is to provide behavioural norms, which help us predict, understand and influence the world. If we expose people to new cultural norms, they tend to incorporate new ways of thinking and doing things. This helps people deploy different perspectives in problem-solving or invention, and improves their ability to deal with unfamiliar contexts back at home.

Importantly, ‘Big M’ events like living abroad aren’t the only way to boost creative abilities. In The Difference, Scott Page rounds up the evidence that culturally diverse groups and teams tend to be better problem-solvers. Essentially, the set of diverse experiences is pooled across the group rather than embodied in a well-travelled individual.

All of this has some important policy implications. First, as Maddux and Galinsky point out, skilled migrants may be at their innovative while abroad. In the US, migrant scientists and inventors dominate the technology and life sciences fields. That suggests an additional reason for the UK to keep its borders open, and to think hard about the migration caps that David Cameron proposes.

Second, it looks as if Britons also benefit from a more diverse society. ‘Little m’ experiences like working in diverse teams should pay off for everyone. Neil Lee and I are confirming this in our current work on firm-level diversity and innovation (a recent paper is here).

Third, cities are critically important to all of this. Urban areas are where the UK’s diversity is, and where most of us live and work. Cities are where it all comes together. Work I’ll be publishing shortly finds that over the past 16 years, increasing migration has helped raise average urban wages and productivity for British-born workers, especially the high skilled. These lab experiments help explain why that’s so. If travel is good for you, so are urban environments that help open your mind.

* I had called this post ‘does travel broaden the mind?’, but as a couple of people have pointed out, like, duh. I hope this one captures the spirit of the research better …

3 Responses to “Does travel make you smarter?*”

  1. mondpanther Says:

    fair enough…but how exactly did they get over the issue of endogeneity? More creative and intelligent ones tend to travel more I would think.

    • squareglasses Says:

      Good point – one of the studies in the living abroad paper tries to isolate this. The authors say they’ve found a causal link from multiculural experience => better probblem solving, but as it’s a small lab study I guess you could be sceptical. They also say that more ‘open-minded’ people tend to benefit more from living abroad – which is basically making your argument, that there’s a selection issue …

  2. mondpanther Says:

    Wasn’t there somebody at SERC who looked at forced migration after WWII in Finland and subsequent labour market outcomes? Probably more exogenous. Always count on the Germans when in need of good science.

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