Science Says Travel Makes You Smarter
Everyone has their own reasons for traveling. Some of us are venturing out on vacation, the two-week jaunt to Europe before the chill of winter sweeps through. Others are traveling on business and don’t have much of a choice in the matter. Others still found a cheap flight and are just going along for the ride. No matter your intentions, though, it’s been proven that travel helps us become better people. Looking at additional research carried out in the past few years, travel may actually make us smarter, too.
In a 2014 study of MBA students led by William W. Maddux, associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, a link was discovered between students’ “multicultural engagement”—the extent to which they adapted to and learned about new cultures—and their “integrative complexity,” their willingness and capacity to acknowledge competing perspectives on the same issue. Put more simply, those students who became highly engaged in other cultures during the program had an easier time holding multiple, conflicting viewpoints in mind at the same time. Their interactions with other cultures gifted them a breadth of perspective they didn’t have before.
In addition, there was a further link between this multicultural engagement and the number of job offers these students received at the end of their MBA program, with the more engaged students receiving more job offers. Maddux concludes, “When individuals are exposed to the same multicultural environment, it is their psychological approach and engagement with different cultures that determines growth in integrative complexity and tangible increases in professional opportunities.” More multicultural experiences spark more job offers. This is an interesting finding, yet things get more interesting still in Maddux’s other explorations of how travel makes us smarter.
In 2009, Maddux and his colleagues administered the remote associates test (RAT), a classic measure of individual creativity, on a group of undergraduate students. Half of the students were asked to recall and write about an experience living abroad just before doing the RAT—priming them with thoughts of travel and multicultural experiences—while the other half were not. The results were clear: those who were primed with thoughts of living abroad solved more than 50% more problems than those who were not. In addition, the researchers explain, “We found that creative enhancement was significantly higher for students who said they had adapted to the foreign countries while they lived there than for students who said they had not.” In other words, the physical relocation isn’t enough; in order to see these benefits, you have to integrate culturally as well.
This is the critical distinction. Travel breaks us out of our parochial ways, forcing us to contemplate other cultures and ways of living that we otherwise wouldn’t. It throws our old conception of reality out the window and replaces it with an updated, more complex one. And it’s precisely this confusion, combined with our brain’s response to it, that pushes us to shift and grow in such unique ways.
In fact, similar effects can be achieved without stepping outside at all. In his 2009 study, psychologist Lile Jia of Indiana University grouped participants into two groups, one who was told that the task at hand was created by students studying abroad in Greece, while half were told that it was created by students locally in Indiana. Aside from this seemingly insignificant change, both groups were tasked with listing as many methods of transportation as they could think of. The results were surprising: participants who performed the task for the students in Greece came up with one-third more transportation methods than those performing the task for students in Indiana, and the transportation methods they came up with were significantly more original. Just the mention of a foreign land made them think more creatively, without so much as leaving the room. As Jia puts it, “Creative generation profits from greater spatial distance.”
This is a clear indication that many of the cognitive and creative benefits we get from travel don’t require physical travel at all. If we can convince the mind, through techniques like priming, that we’re having a multicultural experience, it will act accordingly. It’s a survival technique, at the end of the day—when we’re put in novel, unfamiliar situations, enhanced focus and creativity help to keep us safe.
Clearly, spending time abroad doesn’t only make us smarter; travel makes us more creative as well. It opens our minds, helps us become more emotionally stable and makes us better people. Once we stop interpreting our fear of the unknown, that inevitable wicked step-sister of travel, as a negative thing, we can grab hold of it and leverage its unique ability to help us learn and grow.