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Extended Travel Affects Personality

Going abroad for an extended period changes your personality.

Key points

  • According to one study, participants who chose to study abroad were generally higher in extraversion.
  • Studying abroad likely helps travelers gain perspective on life, making them less emotionally reactive.
  • The experience of meeting new people abroad can increase agreeableness, though this is not directly related to the size of one's network.

Personality reflects a series of long-term goals that people aim to achieve. The characteristics we think of as personality are those that describe differences between people. The goals that every person wants to achieve are the ones that we consider part of human nature. For example, the core dimension of Openness to Experience reflects the general goal to try new things and engage in new experiences. Some people engage in this goal often, and so they are high in Openness to Experience. Others have the goal to remain in familiar environments, and so they are low in Openness to Experience.

Like every other facet of human psychology, personality reflects a combination of biological/genetic factors as well as experiences that influence these goals. Studying the experiences that influence personality is difficult, though, because it requires identifying the kinds of experiences that are likely to affect personality as well as studying individuals over time in order to explore how those experiences lead to changes in personality.

A fascinating paper by Julia Zimmermann and Franz Neyer in the September 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined how extended travel influenced personality development in a large sample of German college students. Some of the students in their sample studied in another country for an extended period of time (one or two semesters), while the control group was in college, but did not study abroad. The researchers were interested in how this period of extended travel influenced personality as well as how the new social network people developed influenced any observed personality changes.

Prior to the travel period, all participants were given a personality inventory to measure the “Big Five” personality dimensions—Extraversion, Agreeableness, Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Stability (which is sometimes called Neuroticism). Participants also gave an extended list of their social networks. After returning from travel (or after an equivalent period of time for those students who did not travel), these measurements were taken again.

One nice thing about this design is that it allowed the researchers to separate the factors that are correlated with choosing to study in another country from the changes in personality characteristics that arise from travel.

Participants who chose to study abroad were generally higher in Extraversion (which reflects a need to engage in social interactions and to be the center of attention) than those who did not. Those who went on a one-semester trip tended to be higher in Conscientiousness (which reflects a need to follow rules and to complete tasks) than those who did not travel. Those who went on a full-year trip were generally higher in Openness to Experience than those who did not travel.

After returning from their trip, those who traveled tended to show an increase in Openness to Experience, Agreeableness (which reflects a need to get along with other people), and Emotional Stability relative to those who did not travel. The effects were not huge, but they were reliable.

These changes in personality were related to changes in people’s social networks as a result of travel. As you might expect, those people who did not travel maintained a similar social network over the study period. In contrast, those people who traveled tended to meet a lot of new people from the host country of their travel and to lose touch with people from their home country. These changes in social networks were particularly strongly related to the observed changes in Openness to Experience and Emotional Stability.

What does this mean?

Extended foreign travel takes people outside of their comfort zone. Travelers have to adapt to new people and new cultural practices. Even people going from Germany to another EU country had to adapt to differences in language, food, and outlook. The more that these travelers engaged with new people from different countries, the more it promoted goals related to Openness. It also helped travelers to gain perspective on life, which made them less emotionally reactive to day-to-day changes (which increased Emotional Stability). The experience of meeting new people also helps with Agreeableness, though this was not directly related to the size of people’s new social networks.

A key question is whether this finding is specific to college students or would be true for older adults as well. The answer to that question is not entirely clear. On the one hand, the college years are an intense period of change for people, which suggests that these effects might be specific to college. On the other hand, it is hard to find samples of adults who are traveling who have a good control group against which they can be compared. Thus, it will be difficult to give a definite answer to this question.

However, in a few other posts, I have talked about how multicultural experiences can increase creativity. This research suggests that extended foreign travel may lead to personality changes even in adults.

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