A couple of years ago I briefly reported on a finding that students who had lived abroad demonstrated greater creativity, if they first recalled a multicultural learning experience from their life abroad. A new study examines this connection, in particular investigating the as-yet-unanswered question of whether students who studied abroad were already more creative than those who didn’t.

The study involved 135 students of whom 45 had studied abroad, 45 were planning to do so, and 45 had not and were not planning to. The groups did not differ significantly in terms of age, gender, or ethnicity, and data from a sample (a third of each group) revealed no differences in terms of GPA and SAT scores. Creativity was assessed using the domain-general Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA) and the culture-specific Cultural Creativity Task (CCT).

Those in the Study Abroad group scored significantly higher on the CCT than those in the other two groups, who didn’t differ from each other. Additionally, those in the Study Abroad group scored significantly higher on the ATTA than those in the No Plan to Study group (those in the Plan to Study group were not significantly different from either of the other two groups).

It seems clear, then, that the findings of earlier studies are indeed ‘real’ (students who study abroad really do come home more creative than before they went) and not a product of self-selection (more creative students are more likely to travel). But the difference between the two creativity tests needs some explanation.

There is a burning issue in creativity research: is creativity a domain-general attribute, or a domain-specific one? This is not a pedantic, theoretical question! If you’re ‘creative’, does that mean you’re equally creative in all areas, or just in specific areas? Or (more likely, it seems to me) is creativity both domain-general and domain-specific?

The ATTA, as I said, measures general creativity. It does so through three 3-minute tasks: identify the troubles you might have if you could walk on air or fly (without benefit of vehicle); draw a picture using two incomplete figures (provided); draw pictures using 9 identical isosceles triangles.

The CCT has five 3-minute tasks that target culturally relevant knowledge and skills. in each case, participants are asked to give as many ideas as they can in response to a specific scenario: getting more foreign tourists to visit America; the changes that would result if you woke up with different skin color; demonstrating high social status; developing new dishes using exotic ingredients; creating a product with universal appeal.

The findings would seem to support the idea that creativity has both general and specific elements. The greater effect of studying abroad on CCT scores (compared to ATTA scores) also seem to me to be consistent with the finding I cited at the beginning — that, to get the benefit, students needed to be reminded of their multicultural experiences. In this case, the CCT scenarios would seem to play that role.

It does of course make complete sense that living abroad would have positive benefits for creativity. Creativity is about not following accustomed ruts in one’s thoughts. Those ruts are not simply generated within our own mind (as we get older, our ruts tend to get deeper), but are products of our relationship with our society. Think of clichés. The more we follow along with accustomed language and thought patterns of our group, the less creative we will be. One way to break (or at least broaden) this, is to widen our groups — by, for example, mixing in diverse circles, or by living abroad.

Interestingly, another recent study (pdf link to paper) reckons that social rejection (generally regarded as a bad thing) can make some people more creative — if they’re independent types who take pride in being different from others.

Lee, C. S., Therriault, D. J., & Linderholm, T. (2012). On the Cognitive Benefits of Cultural Experience: Exploring the Relationship between Studying Abroad and Creative Thinking. Applied Cognitive Psychology, n/a–n/a. doi:10.1002/acp.2857

Kim, S. H., Vincent, L. C., & Goncalo, J. A. (In press). Outside Advantage: Can Social Rejection Fuel Creative Thought? Journal of Experimental Psychology. General.

A link between positive mood and creativity is supported by a study in which 87 students were put into different moods (using music and video clips) and then given a category learning task to do (classifying sets of pictures with visually complex patterns). There were two category tasks: one involved classification on the basis of a rule that could be verbalized; the other was based on a multi-dimensional pattern that could not easily be verbalized.

Happy volunteers were significantly better at learning the rule to classify the patterns than sad or neutral volunteers. There was no difference between those in a neutral mood and those in a negative mood.

It had been theorized that positive mood might only affect processes that require hypothesis testing and rule selection. The mechanism by which this might occur is through increased dopamine levels in the frontal cortex. Interestingly, however, although there was no difference in performance as a function of mood, analysis based on how closely the subjects’ responses matched an optimal strategy for the task found that, again, positive mood was of significant benefit.

The researchers suggest that this effect of positive mood may be the reason behind people liking to watch funny videos at work — they’re trying to enhance their performance by putting themselves in a good mood.

The music and video clips were rated for their mood-inducing effects. Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik—Allegro” was the highest rated music clip (at an average rating of 6.57 on a 7-point scale), Vivaldi’s Spring was next at 6.14. The most positive video was that of a laughing baby (6.57 again), with Whose Line is it Anyway sound effects scoring close behind (6.43).

[2054] Nadler, R. T., Rabi R., & Minda J P.
(2010).  Better Mood and Better Performance.
Psychological Science. 21(12), 1770 - 1776.

Three experiments involving students who had lived abroad and those who hadn't found that those who had experienced a different culture demonstrated greater creativity — but only when they first recalled a multicultural learning experience from their life abroad. Specifically, doing so (a) improved idea flexibility (e.g., the ability to solve problems in multiple ways), (b) increased awareness of underlying connections and associations, and (c) helped overcome functional fixedness. The study also demonstrated that it was learning about the underlying meaning or function of behaviors in the multicultural context that was particularly important for facilitating creativity.

[1622] Maddux, W. W., Adam H., & Galinsky A. D.
(2010).  When in Rome ... Learn Why the Romans Do What They Do: How Multicultural Learning Experiences Facilitate Creativity.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 731 - 741.

Full text is available free for a limited time at

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

(these were covered in my blog of the time, so don't have references, I'm afraid)

Emotional effect of video games can help creativity

As part of the search for ways to use video games educationally, a study of around 100 students has found that those who scored highly on a creativity test after playing the game Dance Dance Revolution fell into two groups: those who had a high degree of emotional arousal (measured by skin conductance) after playing and a positive mood, and (this is the weird part), those in the completely opposite camp — low arousal and negative mood.
The explanation for these somewhat paradoxical findings rests on there being two aspects to creativity — diffused attention (presumably where the happy people score), and a certain analytical ability (which is where the sad people are presumed to score).
It still seems weird, but the take-home point I guess is that being angry (high arousal, negative mood) is not conducive to creativity, and neither is medium arousal. On the other hand, I’m wondering about individual differences. I think some people probably are creative when angry, and I’d like to know about personality characteristics that might have distinguished the students who were creative when happy from those who were creative when sad. Still, interesting study.

Brain Activity Differs For Creative And Noncreative Thinkers

There’s a long-standing debate regarding whether "creative thought" and "noncreative thought" are different. Now an imaging study has revealed fascinating differences in brain activity, even at rest, in people who tend to solve problems with a sudden creative insight -- an "Aha! Moment" – compared to people who tend to solve problems more methodically.

For a start, creative solvers showed more activity in several regions of the right hemisphere — this area is thought to play a special role in solving problems creatively, likely due to right-hemisphere involvement in the processing of loose or "remote" associations between the elements of a problem. The finding that this pattern is evident even when the people aren’t thinking about a problem suggests that even the spontaneous thought of creative individuals contains more remote associations.

Creative and methodical solvers also showed different activity in areas of the brain that process visual information. It looks like creative types have more diffuse attention, perhaps allowing them to broadly sample the environment for experiences that can trigger remote associations.

On the other hand, the more focused attention of methodical solvers reduces their distractibility, allowing them to effectively solve problems for which the solution strategy is already known.

Dissecting the artist's brain

An art historian and a neuroscientist have joined together to create a new academic discipline -- neuroarthistory – which uses brain scanning techniques to answer questions about what is, and has been, going on in artists’ brains. For example, they suggest that Florentine painters made more use of line and Venetian painters more of color, because passive exposure to different natural and manmade environments caused the formation of different visual preferences.

The "Aha!" experience

An intriguing new study into the "Aha!" experience reveals that the distinct patterns of brain activity leading to such moments of insight begin much earlier than the moment itself. Prior to such moments, the pattern of brain activity suggests that the person is focusing attention inwardly, is ready to switch to new trains of thought, and perhaps is actively silencing irrelevant thoughts. This study may eventually lead to an understanding of how to put people in the optimal "frame of mind" to deal with particular types of problems.

Creativity and the "schizotypal" personality

A study of people who're "a bit weird" claims that these "schizotypal" personalities are more creative than either normal or fully schizophrenic people, and that this is due to greater use of the right side of the brain. The researchers suggest such people can make associations faster because they're better at accessing both sides of the brain, and notes that a disproportionate number of schizophrenics and schizotypes are ambidextrous.

Principles for fostering creativity in the workplace

For the last 8 years, Teresa Amabile, head of the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School, has been collecting daily journal entries from 238 people working on creative projects in seven companies in the consumer products, high-tech, and chemical industries, and from this database of "creativity in the wild" she has come up with 6 operating principles for fostering creativity in the workplace.

Sleep may stimulate creative thinking

You can catch an interview on BBC radio with a researcher of a recent study showing sleep may stimulate creative thinking (the sleep bit is the first 8 minutes or so of the program).

Great scientific discoveries tend to be made by young scientists – but only in particular areas

A discussion list to which I belong has recently been discussing the phenomenon? myth?? that great scientific discoveries (in particular areas) tend to be made by young scientists. The famous physicist Murray Gell-Mann, commenting on this, apparently remarked that, in his own field of theoretical particle physics, this was true because the field was so new; in the life sciences, so much was known, that " It took years of study and rote memorization for an aspiring scientist to master what was already known. By the time a researcher was ready to make an original contribution, he was probably well advanced in his career."

This illustrates an important principle in memory and aging that tends to be overlooked. Yes, younger brains are faster, probably more flexible, with perhaps more working memory capacity - but older brains can make up for that, with the fruits of experience. WM capacity is one example of that. Say, at 25, you have a capacity of 8 "units"; say at 75 that has dropped to 6 (this is a simplistic way of representing a complex situation, but I'm trying to make a point here). A "unit" can be a single datum, such as "4" or a complex chunk, such as "The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain of heaven upon the place beneath". The flexibility of the "unit" says everything about the value of strategies - memory strategies can turn complex and lengthy conglomerations of information into single "chunks" / "units". An experienced 75 year old, with expertise in a particular field, can have developed very complex chunks and thus, despite the drop in capacity, easily out-think a 25 year old.

(By the way, if you want to read the classic paper on WM capacity, by George Miller on the "Magical Number Seven", you can read it here.)