Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Becoming Bi-Cultural Makes You More Creative

The value of living in more than one culture.

Innovation provides a key path to business success.  In the 1970s, it may have seemed inconceivable that computers would some day become just another commodity.  Just 40 years later, most manufacturers of computers are competing to produce the fastest cheapest machines, and so they operate on small profit margins.

 The exception to this trend comes from innovative companies like Apple.  Companies that bring out new and exciting projects capture people’s imaginations and ultimately people are willing to pay a premium for their new products. 

 Because of the key role of innovation in generating new business, companies are on the lookout for people who are likely to bring a creative spirit to their work. A paper by Carmit Tadmor, Adam Galinsky, and William Maddux in the September, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explores how living abroad can influence people’s creativity.  This research expands on a previous paper involving some of these researchers. 

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 When people live abroad for an extended period of time, there are three possibilities for their relationship to their host culture.  One possibility is that they will retain their original cultural identity and keep themselves separate from their host culture.  A second possibility is that they will assimilate to the host culture and lose their original cultural identity.  A third possibility is that they will become bicultural, and will retain a strong tie both to their original culture and to the host culture.

 The researchers suggest that when people become bicultural, it helps them to see many sides to an issue.  This integrative complexity allows them to be more creative.  After all, being creative often involves seeing things in more than one way.

 They tested this prospect in a series of studies using people who had lived abroad.  In each study, the researchers measured whether people were separate from their host culture, assimilated to it, or bicultural.  They also assessed a variety of personality characteristics to ensure that the findings were based on the degree to which people became bicultural and not because of a basic personality variable that leads people to be more accepting of a new culture.  They also measured people’s tendency toward integrative complexity by having them write essays about a dilemma.  Essays displaying integrative complexity were ones that acknowledge both sides of the dilemma and talked about the relationship between the opposing sides.

 In one simple study, participants were asked to list as many functions as possible for a brick.  Previous research suggests that creative people are more likely to find many uses for a brick than those who are not that creative.  Participants who were bicultural typically found more uses for a brick than either those who were separate or assimilated to the host culture.  Statistical analyses suggested that the best explanation for this difference was that the bicultural participants also displayed more integrative complexity in their essays.

 Two other studies explored the workplace.  One study found that bicultural individuals were more likely than separated and assimilated individuals to start new companies based on new ideas and to generate new ideas that were successfully implemented in their companies.  A second study found that bicultural individuals were also more likely than separated and assimilated individuals to be promoted and to achieve high levels of status in their company.  In both cases, the degree of integrative complexity supported by being bicultural was the best statistical explanation for these findings.

 Putting all of this together, the value of living abroad comes from putting in effort to understand the new culture while at the same time retaining an original cultural identity.  Truly understanding and identifying with two cultures allows people to see the same issue from multiple perspectives.  In real world settings, this ability to consider different sides of a situation allows people to generate new ideas and to innovate.  These findings suggest that companies would do well to find employees with experience in more than one culture.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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