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Having the Status Quo Turned Upside Down Can Free Your Mind

Life events that push you beyond "normality” may foster out-of-the-box thinking.

This post is in response to
Why Weird Experiences Boost Creativity
 Courtesy of Rodica Damian
Rodica Damian, Assistant Professor of Social-Personality Psychology at the University of Houston. (Follow on Twitter @RodicaDamian)
Source: Courtesy of Rodica Damian

This three-part blog post is inspired by the research of Rodica Damian, who is an Assistant Professor of Social-Personality Psychology at the University of Houston. One focus of Damian's multi-faceted research is the potentially life-changing influence of diversifying experiences—which are highly unusual/unexpected events or situations (e.g., early life adversity, schema violations, multicultural exposure) that push individuals outside the framework of commonplace, everyday life experience and often help people think outside the box.

Damian also researches personality development across the lifespan (from high school to old age) with an emphasis on the downstream consequences of personality, life experiences and social context on creativity and career success. She's also involved in a variety of ongoing longitudinal studies in different countries around the globe. As of 2018, Damian has published over 23 articles in international peer-reviewed journals.

The first section of this post explores the findings of Damian's paper, "Sixteen Going on Sixty-Six: A Longitudinal Study of Personality Stability and Change Across 50 Years," which was published August 16, 2018, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (A few weeks ago, I reported on this research in a Psychology Today blog post, “How Do Personality Traits Change from 16 to 66?”)

The second section focuses on Damian and colleagues' pioneering Diversifying Experience Model (DEM) as it relates to divergent thinking, cognitive flexibility, and creative achievement. Here we'll explore this theoretical model, as proposed in "The Diversifying Experience Model: Taking a Broader Conceptual View of the Multiculturalism–Creativity Link," which was first published January 18, 2018, in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

The third section of this post is a recap of a 45-minute conversation I had with Rodica Damian earlier this week. The title of this post and the (purposely limited) prescriptive advice herein is based on the most notable takeaways of my review of Damian’s work, the proposed DEM model, along with anecdotal and evidence-based examples of when, why, and how diversifying experiences have been shown to facilitate out-of-the-box thinking.

Part One: How Do We Change and Stay the Same from the Age of 16 to 66?

For this study, first author Rodica Damian and her team analyzed a sample of 1,795 participants from Project Talent, which is a 50-year nationwide study that began assessing personality traits and other factors in almost half-a-million U.S. high school students during the early 1960s.

After analyzing swaths of data, Damian and colleagues found that individual personality traits remained fairly consistent across a person’s lifespan when people compared themselves with others (a.k.a. rank-order stability), but they also showed change when people compared themselves to their younger selves (a.k.a. mean-level change). For example, someone who was more conscientious than others at 16 tended to remain more conscientious than others at 66. However, relative to their younger selves, most people tended to become more conscientious, more agreeable, and more emotionally stable (less neuroticism) as they got older. The authors conclude, “Gender played little role in personality development across the lifespan. Our findings suggest that personality has a stable component across the lifespan, both at the trait level and at the profile level, and that personality is also malleable and people mature as they age.”

After reading about this research last summer, I reached out to Rodica Damian via email to find out if she and her team had looked at other “Big Five” traits such as extraversion and openness to experience from age 16 to 66. As someone who is currently 52-years-old, my interest in exploring this question was personal. Like the majority of people in the study, since high school, I’ve become much more conscientious, more agreeable, and more emotionally stable. But, I’ve also become much less open to new experiences and more stuck in my ways. (As an example see, "Growth Mindset Advice: Take Your Passion and Make it Happen!")

In my initial email to Rodica Damian, I asked, “On average, did the cohorts in your 50-year longitudinal study display more or less openness to experience at 66 than at 16?” Rodica responded, “The average change in Openness was fairly small, but showed a slight increase with age, but there were individual differences in change: 12.6% of people decreased, 17.5% increased, 69.9% did not show reliable change. I'd take the openness results with a grain of salt, because our measure of openness ("Culture") correlates about .50 with modern measures, so it's a bit different, because modern personality scales did not exist in the 60s.”

Part Two: The Diversifying Experience Model (DEM) Proposes a Link Between Personal Adaptive Resources, Challenge/Threat Appraisals, and Creativity

Sindre Strøm/Pexels
Source: Sindre Strøm/Pexels

In their 2018 paper, “The Diversifying Experience Model: Taking a Broader Conceptual View of the Multiculturalism–Creativity Link,” Małgorzata Anna Gocłowska, Rodica Damian, and Shira Mor present a new framework for identifying various factors that appear to influence whether or not being pushed outside the realm of “normality” stifles or promotes creative achievement. Under the Diversifying Experience Model (DEM), Damian and colleagues posit that “medium intensity” diversifying experiences that fall into a Goldilocks-like sweet spot can facilitate creativity if someone has the “personal adaptive resources” to frame being pushed outside the realm of normality as a “challenge” (that he or she can cope with) as opposed to an overwhelming, anxiety-inducing “threat.”

For example, living abroad can be approached very differently by two different people: Some people will go and explore, take it as a challenge, and expand their minds, whereas others will search for the nearest chain restaurant that reminds them of home and take the whole experience as a threat to their identity. Presumably, the gains in terms of creativity will differ for these two people, with the first person’s creativity potentially benefiting more. Similarly, people who encounter difficulties or even traumas, can perceive them as threats or challenges, go down a spiral or grow from them, respectively. What could be some factors that may act as “adaptive personal resources,” that may help people overcome and even grow from these experiences? The research is scarce right now, but some candidates are intelligence, personality traits (e.g., higher openness, extraversion, emotional stability, financial resources, social support, or mental toughness.)

As the authors explain, “Diversifying experience intensity and the use of adaptive resources interact to predict threat and challenge appraisals, and in turn, creativity. When adaptive resources are high, moderate diversifying experiences are appraised primarily as a challenge, increasing creativity, whereas when adaptive resources are low, moderate diversifying experiences are appraised primarily as a threat, leading to creative decrements. At low to medium intensities, diversifying experiences will primarily be perceived as a challenge (increasing creativity), but at medium to high intensities, threat appraisals are more likely to dominate (decreasing creativity).”

Part Three: A Discussion Between Rodica Damian and Christopher Bergland About the Diversifying Experience Model

Earlier this week, I had a chance to speak with Rodica Damian on the phone for almost an hour. We shared lots of stories and she explained that the Diversifying Experience Model is in its earliest stages and that it’s too early to draw specific conclusions that could be framed as prescriptive advice. That being said, prior to our conversation, my objective was to have Rodica answer some “million-dollar” questions and offer prescriptive advice on how to find a sweet-spot of diversifying experiences by boosting adaptive resources and learning to look at adversity as a “challenge” and not a “threat.”

In an email prior to speaking on the phone with Rodica Damian, I wanted to give her some background on my own experience with both positive and negative diversifying experiences. I wrote:

“In 1982, when I was 16, there was a perfect storm of diversifying experiences in my life that included multicultural exposure (summer in Spain), unexpected adversity (parents divorce/father moved to Australia to avoid alimony & child support payments), and violation of expectations (realized I was gay). At the time, I was attending an elitist boarding school in Connecticut called Choate. Until this period of rapid-fire schema violations, I’d lived a “silver-spoon” childhood/adolescence with high socioeconomic status. When my dad quit his job as a Harvard neurosurgeon and abandoned us abruptly in the winter of 1983 (he came back in '85), the financial security I’d taken for granted my entire life was gone in a flash. I enrolled in a public school for the first time as a senior in high school, got a job at the local supermarket for spending money, and learned to become self-reliant. This unexpected life adversity was the best thing that ever happened to me!!!

In a sink-or-swim moment, I was able to reframe the adversities I encountered as “challenges” rather than “threats.” For me, the single most important factor that made it possible to cope with this series of unanticipated events that pushed me beyond the realm of “normality” was the financial resources of my grandparents, who were like the Rock of Gibraltar. If things ever got really dire, they’d send money, and I knew they could afford to pay my college tuition. Luckily, the threat to my long-term future was minimal and I was well aware of my good fortune. That said, my discovery of the power of running in the summer of 1983 fortified my resilience, seize-the-day attitude, and aversion to adopting a “victimhood” mindset. (For more see, “Mastering a Mindset of Loving to Win Without Hating to Lose.”) Also, during the process of coming out as a gay teen, I intuitively gravitated towards marginalized groups and had zero interest in upholding the status quo or being part of the “old boys’ club.” My anti-establishment inclinations led me to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is a school without tests or grades that nurtures cognitive flexibility, divergent thinking, and creativity.”

A recent CDC study identified five sociodemographic factors across the United States that increase the odds of someone being exposed to adverse childhood experiences and recommended that we do our best as a society to limit ACEs across the board for future generations. (For more see, “5 Factors Linked to Higher Risk of Early Life Adversity.”) As the father of a 10-year-old, I often have a knee-jerk reaction to shield and protect my child from any adversity by acting like a helicopter parent. But, after learning about Damian’s research on diversifying experiences, it seems that a “sweet spot” of diversifying experiences can increase creativity and is good thing for helping someone think outside the box. I also know from the aforementioned life experience that being exposed to different cultures, a medium dose of early life adversity, and being nudged outside anticipated norms during adolescence was actually a blessing in disguise in terms of making me more iconoclastic and wired to “think differently.”

At the beginning of our conversation, after discussing the latest CDC findings on the sociodemographics of being more susceptible to adverse childhood experiences, I said to Rodica:

“As a parent, I'm constantly on a mission to identify childhood experiences that will optimize our daughter's life potential, resilience, creative thinking, growth mindset, etc. And to seek out different ways for her to experience diversifying experiences and a healthy dose of “positive adversity" via athletic challenges and outdoor adventures. Finding a sweet spot of moderate (but not low or high) levels of diversifying experiences can be tricky when you have an automatic reaction to create an overarching sense of security and day-in-day-out stability for your child."

Then I asked Rodica, "Do you have any advice for parents or caregivers on how to navigate the thin line between “too much” childhood adversity and “not enough” positive or negative diversifying experiences?”

Without missing a beat, Rodica made it very clear that purposely creating any type of negativity or unnecessary adversity in a child’s life is a bad idea! She said, “Extensive research has shown that childhood trauma or adversity can have long-lasting negative consequences for career success, physical, and mental health. Of course, not everyone shows negative consequences and there are numerous examples of highly successful and well-adjusted people who have gone through incredible trauma and have come out the other end as better people and even as creative geniuses. In fact, diversifying experiences (including trauma) have been shown to be over-represented among highly successful people compared to the general population (e.g., think Maya Angelou, Marie Curie, Ray Charles, or Trevor Noah). These people have clearly uncovered the key to overcoming and growing from trauma, but not everyone is able to do that, and we don’t know yet what their “secret” is or even if there is a “personal adaptive resource” that fits all.”

After discussing various types of diversifying experiences and the specific findings of her latest paper on the multiculturalism-creativity link, Rodica did say that the heterogeneity of going outside the all-too-familiar homogenized environment of a small “hometown” or indigenous culture might have a positive influence on creativity. When it comes to diversifying experiences that foster thinking outside the box and innovation, multiculturalism might be one of the most positive ways to “step outside the realm of normality” in ways that increase cognitive flexibility. Scott Barry Kaufman wrote about this in a 2012 Psychology Today blog post, “Why Weird Experiences Boost Creativity,” which was based on previous research by Rodica Damian and colleagues.

During our conversation, Rodica told me that being nudged outside of anticipated norms via multicultural exposure can lead to out-of-the-box thinking and has been linked to positive outcomes regarding creative achievement. She said, “Research from multiple fields seems to converge on the idea that multiculturalism and diversity might enhance creativity. My colleagues and I did a study where we showed that bicultural individuals with well-integrated identities were more creative; research on creative geniuses across history shows that many of them have been foreign-born immigrants or part of cultural, religious, or ethnic minorities; economic research of 10 years of the U.S. economy (Peri, G., 2012) showed that, although foreign-born immigrants represented only 13% of the U.S. population, they accounted for 30% of new patents, and 25% of all U.S. Nobel laureates. Another interesting example comes from a study (Simonton, D. K., 1997) using historical data on Japan. Historically, Japan has had an unusual variation in the degree to which the country was open or not to foreign influences. They had clear periods where immigration and emigration were prevalent, followed by clear periods when that was not the case. The study found that whenever Japan was open to foreign influences, across 14 domains of national achievement, creativity flourished.”

Rodica — Huge thanks for taking time out of your hectic fall semester to share these insights about your fascinating research with me and Psychology Today readers. Much appreciated!!


Małgorzata Anna Gocłowska, Rodica Ioana Damian, Shira Mor. "The Diversifying Experience Model: Taking a Broader Conceptual View of the Multiculturalism–Creativity Link." Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology (First published online: January 18, 2018) DOI: 10.1177/0022022116650258

Rodica Ioana Damian, Marion Spengler, Andreea Sutu, Brent W. Roberts. "Sixteen Going on Sixty-Six: A Longitudinal Study of Personality Stability and Change Across 50 Years." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (First published online: August 16, 2018) DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000210

Rodica Ioana Damian & Dean Keith Simonton. "Psychopathology, Adversity, and Creativity: Diversifying Experiences in the Development of Eminent African Americans." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (First published: August 2014) DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000011

Simone M. Rittera, Rodica Ioana Damian, Dean Keith Simonton, Rick B. van Baaren, Madelijn Strick, Jeroen Derks, Ap Dijksterhuisa. "Diversifying Experiences Enhance Cognitive Flexibility." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (First published online: February 12, 2012) DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.009

Melissa T. Merrick, Derek C. Ford, Katie A. Ports, Angie S. Guinn. "Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences From the 2011-2014 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System in 23 States." JAMA Pediatrics (First published online: September 17, 2018) DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.2537

Giovanni Peri. "Effect Immigration on Productivity: Evidence from U.S. States." Review of Economics and Statistics, Volume 94 | Issue 1 | February (2012) p.348-358 DOI: 10.1162/REST_a_00137

Dean Keith Simonton. "Foreign Influence and National Achievement: The Impact of Open Milieus on Japanese Civilization." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(1), 86-94. (1997) DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.72.1.86