Living Abroad: Does it Make You More CreAtiVe?

The Duncker Candle Problem

Look at the picture below. You should see a candle, a pack of matches and a box of tacks next to a cardboard wall. Can you figure out, using only the objects on the table, how to attach the candle to the wall, so that the candle burns properly and does not drip wax on the table or the floor?

If you’re in the mood to share (and we’d love to hear from you!), scroll down and leave a comment with your answer!

Can you figure out the answer?

Can you figure out the answer?

Now, here’s the correct solution; you need to empty the box of tacks, use the tacks to pin the box to the wall, and place the candle in the box. The box acts as a candle holder! Don’t feel bad if you didn’t get it, I didn’t either.

The Research

In a recent study, William W. Maddux and Adam D. Galinsky used the Duncker Candle Problem, illustrated above, to test creativity. (Were you creative in your answer?) Due to previous research in the field, the psychologists hypothesized that creativity correlates to living abroad. Research has already found first and second generation immigrants and bilingual individuals have comparatively high levels of creativity, and in their article, Maddux and Galinsky presented a long list of creators, including writers (Hemingway and Yeats), artists (Gauguin and Picasso) and composers (Handel and Stravinsky), who created their most famous works during or immediately after living abroad.

The Dream by Picasso

The Dream by Picasso

Maddux and Galinsky conducted five experiments, and found a strong positive link between living abroad and creativity. According to the research, the more time an individual spends living abroad the more likely they are able to solve creativity tests, like the Duncker Candle problem. While the study is not causal—meaning the research does clarify whether creative people tend to live abroad or living abroad fosters creativity—the study does offer some strong empirical evidence for a link between living in foreign countries and creativity.

Surprisingly, traveling abroad (i.e. visiting) did not have the same effect! This suggests that having to adapt or acculturate to a new culture is what really drives this creative ability correlation; living in a different culture and learning cultural norms allows, maybe even forces individuals to see life from different perspectives, positively affecting creativity.

These findings have special implications for children growing up abroad. Maybe this research provides a different perspective in looking at the pros and cons of sending expat children to local schools and exposing them to the culture of the host country? Maybe those of us in the international community can celebrate and share our creativity, a very positive aspect of a sometimes difficult life? Maybe parents can begin to foster creativity in their children, creating an “in” for them into a social network? (This references the article titled “Education Outside the Classroom.” Check it out!) One thing is for sure, this is another piece of evidence that expat kids, TCKs, Global Nomads, and the like, really are the next generation of global leaders.

A special thanks to Joseph Leahy for bringing this article to my attention.

Find this interesting? Read the whole article!

Maddux, W. W. & Galinsky, A. D. (2009). Cultural borders and mental barriers: the relationship between living abroad and creativity. American Psychological Association, (96)5, 1047-1061.

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10 Responses to Living Abroad: Does it Make You More CreAtiVe?

  1. Karen Holloman says:

    This is very interesting and as I look at my children it does seem true. They spent three years at a local school in Australia. One of them is an English major who loves to write poetry (a boy) and also loves to play guitar and write his own songs. One of the other boys is determined to be the next Stephen King. Besides writing a series of short stories, he has already written 200 pages of his fantasy novel. His goal is a 500-600 page book (he is 14). Although Australia, may not be that different from the US, it definitely required them to step into another culture. These two boys embraced such sports as cricket, rugby, and nippers (surf life saving), while my oldest son stayed within his American comfort zone with basketball. He is the one who is now studying to be a CPA. Although we are thrilled with his career choice, maybe with a little more cricket and rugby, he would have followed a different path.

  2. Laura Saylor says:

    I definitely buy this. I found myself able to write half decent poetry just after returning from Spain as a study abroad student. I can’t for the life of me create poems like the ones that came to me while I was re-entering the US. It’s possible that part of one’s creativity abroad is born out of isolation/loneliness and the deep sense of loss it creates, but part of it must also be affected by the fact that living abroad is already an expression of a creative way of approaching things vs. conforming to the norm.

  3. Joe says:

    I know that, for me, living abroad had a profound effect on my personal and professional development. Living outside of my cultural norms, learned behaviors and mother language definitely forced me to use different thought processes to tackle tasks that used to be simple. Just buying a loaf of bread in Germany became a small challenge in communication and my ability to adapt to new tastes, customs and buying habits. It didn’t stop there, I was forced to rethink almost every daily activity that had been second nature for so long. I can’t say whether I have become more creative in the arts ( I never was :), but I can say that I am more appreciative of the view points of others and more creative in the way that I approach challenges and problem solving.

  4. I definitely think that Laura and Joe are onto something. It makes a great deal of sense that it is not only the experience of being exposed to different cultures, which may be a component of traveling as well as living abroad, but the adversity, having to challenge yourself to the depths of your soul that takes place when you are so isolated, misunderstood and need to be creative to solve even the simplest problem that develops the creativity that the research discusses.

  5. […] In Education Last week, we spoke about children living abroad being more creative. This week, I’m following up with more thoughts about creativity in […]

  6. Joseph Damani McDole Sr. says:

    At first read this seems extremely challenging, but when you realize what is said your realize, you can dump out the tacks and fasten the tack box to the wall with a tack. Then place the candle in the box, and melt wax at it’s base to keep it there. Problem solved.

  7. Ronald Almeida says:

    Living abroad does make you creative as long as it is not in one of the monolingual characterless melting pots of medicrity.

  8. kelly says:

    …….Vocêis não me ajudou em nadaa….

    ….Este texto é uma porcariaaa….

    ….Eu façoo um melhor.. Vocs tein que ser mais criativos nãoo podee fazer isso .. e esse caraa aii é um filha da putaa…

    …Boun essa é a minha opinião desse bosta desse textoo …Xauu Atée nunca maisss

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