These days, the word multicultural has both positive and negative connotations. On the one hand, the world is becoming a smaller place. The internet allows us to talk to people from all over the world with no delays. Airplanes allow you to be somewhere else in a matter of hours. Success in the modern world requires understanding something about people from other cultures.
At the same time, the ease of moving from place to place has led to an increase in immigration around the world. Members of majority cultures in a country sometimes bristle at the presence of outsiders who speak different languages, dress in different clothes, and compete for jobs.
Are there psychological benefits to multicultural experiences?
This issue was addressed in a paper by William Maddux, Hajo Adam, and Adam Galinsky in a June 2010 paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They were particularly interested in whether living abroad and learning about the cultural practices of people from another culture would make you more creative.
The idea here is that when you go to a different culture, there are often subtle differences that you have to learn about. For example, in the US, if you go to someone’s house and they offer you a drink or snack, you respond “Yes” or “No” depending on whether you want a snack. In Russia, though, it is impolite to say “Yes” the first time something is offered, and so you refuse the first request. The host asks again, and after a brief negotiation, you may settle on having a snack. A Russian visiting the US for the first time might refuse the offer of a snack, only to be surprised that she is not asked a second time. Eventually, she must learn that the practices are different.
Learning that the same task (getting a snack) has different solutions is a hallmark of creativity. Thus, living in another culture and learning the practices of that culture may enhance the psychological processes that make people more creative.
To test this possibility, the authors ran a series of studies. In one study, all of the participants were students who had some experience living abroad. At the start of the study, some participants were asked to think about an experience in another culture in which they learned something new about the culture and also learned the reason why people did what they did. Others thought about an experience in which they learned something about their own culture and why people do what they do. A third group thought about learning something new about a sport. A fourth group did not do an initial memory task.
Then, all the participants performed the Remote Associates Task. In this task, you see three words and have to come up with a fourth word that relates to the first three. For example, you might see the words PUTTING BACK HORN. The correct answer in this case would be GREEN. Doing this task successfully requires thinking differently about all of the words.
The authors found that the group who thought about their experiences learning about a new culture solved many more of the items from the Remote Associates Task than people in any of the other experimental groups. This finding suggests that reminding people about their cultural learning experiences increased their creativity.
Other studies demonstrated that asking people who have never lived abroad to think about learning something about a new culture did not increase creativity. These other studies also demonstrated that the key aspect of learning something new about another culture is understanding why people do what they do.
This work demonstrates a clear benefit of living in another culture. There are few experiences in life that require you to really re-think the many aspects of life that you take for granted. Living in another culture and adapting to it is one of the most powerful of those learning opportunities. Living successfully in another culture then helps you to be creative in a variety of other circumstances.