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Creativity and Multicultural Experiences

Children of binational parents are often more creative.

Photo of binational family.
The Mansour-Coppel family from Melbourne, Australia

Researchers have known for several years that interacting with another culture can boost one’s creativity, as measured by standard tests of creative thinking. Individuals who study abroad or live abroad, for example, tend to generate more innovative solutions to various kinds of problems.

They also perform better on the Remote Associates Test, a test of associational thinking that requires participants to inspect three words—playing, credit, and report, for example—and generate a fourth word (in this case, card) that links the first three words together.

In controlled experiments, participants who are primed with cultural icons from two nations (China and the United States, for example) tend to generate more creative responses—like a retelling of the Cinderella story—than participants who have been primed to think of a single culture or not primed at all.

But what about children who have grown up in a multicultural family? Might they also be more creative? If living abroad enhances one’s creativity, then surely living in a multicultural household should have the same effect. After all, the child whose parents grew up in different parts of the world is “living abroad” nearly every day.

Jen-Ho Chang and his colleagues at National Taiwan Normal University investigated this question and published their findings in 2014 in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

They recruited 710 children from 15 different junior high schools in Taiwan. Two hundred and ninety of the children were from binational families; that is, their parents came from different countries. The remaining children had parents who were both from Taiwan. In most of the binational families, the father was Taiwanese and the mother was born in Southeast Asia or East Asia.

All of the children completed the Chinese Creative Thinking Test, a modified version of a creative thinking test often used in Western studies. The children were given 10 different-sized versions of the Chinese character for “human” and instructed to draw as many creative figures as they could within 10 minutes. Each drawn figure had to include the “human” character, which looks like an upside-down V.

Independent raters counted, for each child, the number of figures produced (fluency) and judged the unusualness of the figures produced (originality). The children from binational families performed better than the other children on both measures, fluency and originality.

The difference was not large, but it was significant. And the difference remained even after the researchers statistically removed the effects of personality traits and family background factors like socioeconomic status and parents’ education.

Chang and his team were not able to identify the exact reason why children from binational families outperformed their peers. They point, however, to earlier studies that have documented a bilingual advantage on measures of creative thinking. Cognitive flexibility is a primary component of creativity, and individuals who speak more than one language are generally more flexible than their monolingual counterparts.

Another possible explanation can be found in the priming studies mentioned earlier. Children who live in a binational household are exposed every day to the perspectives of two different cultures. They learn there is almost always more than one way to solve a problem or think about an issue.

Bottom line? If you want your child to be more creative, place him or her in situations that foster cognitive flexibility. Foreign language lessons and traveling abroad can do the trick, of course, but so can hosting a foreign exchange student or enrolling your child at a school that is racially and ethnically diverse. In today’s world, it’s easier than ever to go global while staying local.


Chang, J.-H., Hsu, C.-C., Shih, N.-H., & Chen, H.-C. (2014). Multicultural families and creative children. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 45(8), 1288-1296.

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