Why Traveling Abroad Makes Us More Creative Part II

Why Traveling Abroad Makes Us More Creative Part II

A few months ago I reported on a 2009 study out of the Kellogg School of Management by William Maddux and Adam Galinsky. Through a series of five studies Maddux and Galinsky found that students who traveled abroad scored higher on tests of creativity (for example, they solved Duncker’s candle problem more frequently). That is, walking the streets of Berlin, Bangkok or Beijing influences us to see things from multiple perspectives, it leaves a residue on our minds that makes it easier to see one thing as having multiple meanings.


Recent experiments out of Indiana University demonstrate complementary results. In one study, professor Lile Jia and his colleagues asked participants to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. Here was the twist: they told half of the participants that Indiana University students studying in Greece (distant condition) created the task; the other half were told Indiana University students studying in Indiana (near condition) were the creators. Jia and his team found that participants in the distant condition generated more modes of transportation and were more original with their ideas – even “psychological distance” boosts creativity.

A wealth of research on multicultural experiences highlights numerous benefits for creativity, but several questions remain. For instance, is creativity domain specific or general? And does traveling abroad contribute to the later or the former? Are previous findings causal or correlative? After all, students who go abroad might be endowed with an open and creative mindset in the first place. 

This brings me to a brand new study from a team of researchers out of the University of Florida, Gainesville, including Christine LeeDavid Therriault, and Tracy Linderholm. For their study they gathered three groups of undergrads; 45 had studied abroad, 45 were planning to study abroad, and 45 had no interest in studying abroad.

They tasked them with two creativity tests. The first was the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA), which included three activities. For the first participants identified the troubles they might encounter if they could “walk on air or fly without being in an airplane or similar vehicle.” Second, participants were “given two incomplete figures and asked to draw pictures with the figures.” In the last test, the researchers had the undergrads draw pictures using nine identical isosceles triangles. The purpose of the ATTA was to test general creativity.

The second test was the Cultural Creativity Task (CCT), created by Lee and her colleagues back in 2011. In contrast to the ATTA, the CCT tested culture specific creative thinking. For example, the participants responded to the following scenarios: waking up with a different skin color, demonstrating high social status, developing new dishes using exotic ingredients, and creating a product that will have universal appeal.

The first thing the scientists found was that students who studied abroad scored higher on the CCT. This means that when it comes cultural specific creativity students who lived abroad outperformed those who did not. So far, so obvious. However, the team also found that the study abroad group scored higher on the ATTA, which measures general creativity. Taken together, both results “indicate that students who studied abroad demonstrate superior creative thinking on both a culture specific and a domain general measure of creative thinking compared with students who have not studied abroad.”

In a recent email exchange Lee put it this way:

We were excited to find that students who studied abroad generated ideas that were higher in quality and more novel on both a general as well as culture-specific measure of creativity (compared to students who did not study abroad). We believe our findings have relevant implications regarding the benefits of multicultural experiences on creative thinking.

That said, she cautioned that, “replicating our findings in future studies using a pre-post design (testing students before and after they study abroad), and controlling for factors such as location and length of study, would greatly bolster the promising findings from our study.” Doing so should better answer the question of the results being causal or correlative.

Until then, if you’re given a chance to wander the world, take it. A stroll through the neighborhoods of Berlin, Bangkok or Beijing might not change your life, but it will leave a cultural footprint on your mind - one that will influence you to generate more creative solutions to everyday problems. 

Image via Shuttershock

And a special thanks to Christine Lee. (Linkedin page)

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There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who play (or played) video games and those who don't get video games at all.

Okay, I admit this might be an oversimplification. But for a 58-year-old guy who didn't start playing until about ten years ago, this bifurcation explains why so many people miss what is truly revolutionary in these revolutionary technologies. I find myself spending a lot of time explaining to my non-gamer friends (both young and old) that in the midst of all the alien shooters, battle royales, and side-scrolling melee fighters — FYI, these are game genres — there lies a radically potent new method for storytelling. And it's storytelling that provides one path by which a great video game can become great art. To illustrate this point, let me introduce The Last of Us Part II.

Released during COVID-19, The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) tells a story in a world fallen to a pandemic. The subject matter certainly seems timely, but by itself, that doesn't mean much. Post-apocalyptic pandemic video games are a dime a dozen. There are a zillion titles out there that will let you spend 20 or 30 hours of game time mowing down zombies of one form or another while upgrading your weapons, health, and skills.

The sublime art of TLOU2

Now, don't get me wrong. The mowing down of zombies and the upgrading of skills common to many video games are just fine. Not every game has to be great art, just like not every movie you watch or novel you read has to be great art. There is, most definitely, a place in this world for mindless escape, entertainment, and fun. That's because — if you are into it — sneaking around some last-outpost-of-humanity while trying to take out dangerous zombies can be a delicious waste of time at the end of a hard day. But with TLOU2, there is all that and more.

The creators of TLOU2 take players on a difficult, exhausting journey through the consequences of violence.

Given the "Part II" in its title, TLOU2 is obviously the continuation of a story laid down in The Last of Us. That game followed Joel, a survival-hardened middle-aged smuggler who's been tasked with shepherding teenaged Ellie across the country 20 years after the pandemic outbreak. Ellie is immune to the infection that turns people into zombies. Joel is given his mission by a resistance group that hopes to use Ellie to find a final cure. The journey of Ellie and Joel (who lost his own teenaged daughter two decades earlier in the outbreak) is harrowing and makes The Last of Us almost universally recognized as one of the greatest video games ever made. I've written before about how TLOU's innovative use of game-playing mechanics redefined what was possible for storytelling. In TLOU2, creator Naughty Dog Studio manages to make lightning strike twice, finding an entirely new path to transformative innovation.

Warning! From here on there are serious spoilers. If you think you want to play these games STOP.


The Last of Us Part IICredit: Naughty Dog


You've been warned

TLOU2 takes place four years after the end of the original game. The story is set in motion with the brutal murder of Joel as Ellie is forced to watch. It's an act of vengeance, a retribution for Joel's own choices at the end of the first game. So, what does TLOU2 do to make this game rise above a thousand other stories of vengeance and retribution? The answer lies in the most basic mechanics of game play: perspective.

When you play a video game like TLOU2, you take on the role of the character. This means you literally take control of their actions, seeing through their eyes (or over their shoulder) as you navigate them through the world and the story. This is where the digital technologies of video games take storytelling into new domains. In the hands of lesser creators, the possibilities of that power are lost, and you just get another ho-hum shooter with a weak story. That's not what happens in TLOU2.

The first half of the game follows Ellie as she tracks down Joel's killer and seeks her own vengeance. Her quarry is Abby, the daughter of a doctor that Joel killed at the end of the first game. Abby is now part of a paramilitary group in Seattle, and you, playing as Ellie, must work your way through the city to find her over the course of three days. Using stealth and combat, fighting both the infected (really terrifying zombies) and Abby's compatriots, the effort is unnerving and exhausting. Unlike most games, TLOU2 does not let you off the hook in its depiction of violence. The brutality of what you are doing cannot be avoided. Characters struggle for their lives and call to each other by name if you take one down. They are friends, and you are the one ending that friendship forever.

The big plot twist

Which you are doing because, in a stunning design choice, TLOU2 switches that all-important perspective on you right in the middle of the game. With an impressive narrative mechanism, the clock gets reset to three days earlier, and you are now Abby, greeting one friend after another at the stadium that serves as the paramilitary group's base of operations. You get breakfast at the commissary and chat with folks in the line. You check out gear for the upcoming patrol and take responsibility for a playful guard dog named Alice.

As you move Abby through these often intimate interactions, you come to realize that these are all the people that you just murdered (including the dog) in the first half of the game when you were Ellie. It's a terrible, harrowing shift that colors the rest of the game as it goes on to unpack deeper issues about the strictures of our tribalism, our capacities for choice, and the possibilities of forgiveness. In the end, I was just blown away.

What matters for our discussion today is that the immense power of TLOU2 — namely, its ability to haunt me months after I finished the game — is due to the medium. Yes, a novel or film can force a change in perspective and that can be arresting. But it's the immersion, the agency, and the appearance of choice (even if limited) in video games that radically shifts the experience of perspective in a story. And in that shift comes a transcendence, a reframing, and a learning that are all the reasons why we turn to art. Ultimately, one reason we create art, one reason we participate in art, is an effort to learn something. Through it, we hope to find something deeper, something more about this mystery of being human.

That is what TLOU2 accomplishes. Through the medium of video games, the creators of TLOU2 take players on a difficult, exhausting journey through the consequences of violence. Given that medium's usual careless treatment of violence, making such a journey possible was not a small thing. It was revealing, and that is what we can, and should, ask from true art.

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