Romancing Innovation

Intercultural relationships can unlock creative potential, a new study shows.

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Given the premium placed on creativity by corporate leadership these days — more than 70 percent of executives listed fostering creativity as one of their three most important tasks in a recent McKinsey Global Survey — the cottage industry that’s sprung up promising to help individuals develop the trait is hardly surprising.

A quick Google search for “how to be more creative” reveals thousands upon thousands of listicles with advice ranging from the genuine helpful (“learn not to take failure so personally”), to the banal (“keep asking new questions”), to the bizarre (“watch The Three Stooges”). Even amid this flood of advice, however, new research suggests the pundits may have missed one resource a little closer to home — your romantic partner.

According to a new paper from researchers at Columbia Business School, INSEAD, UC Davis, and Católica Lisbon School of Business & Economics, building close connections with someone from another culture can enhance an individual’s creativity.

Anecdotally, there are many examples of people in intercultural relationships being remarkably creative. The researchers point to Marie and Pierre Curie — Noble Prize winners in physics from, respectively, Poland and France — as one example. Actors Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, from the US and Cuba, were married TV legends.

The paper is part of a growing body of literature showing that creativity, rather than being an in-born trait as was long assumed, is more like a skill — something that can be learned and improved. Amongst the most effective means for spurring creativity is exposure to and immersion in unfamiliar experiences and concepts, including foreign cultures.

“A big part of creativity is understanding that the same forms can have multiple functions,” explains Adam Galinsky, an author of the study and chair of the Management Division at Columbia Business School. The classic example of this is the “candle problem,” in which participants are given a candle and box of tacks and told to attach the candle to the wall so that it doesn’t drip wax on the floor when lit. The solution requires that the person put the candle in the box of tacks and tack the box to the wall, a creative repurposing of the object.

Galinsky and his fellow researchers, including Jackson Lu, a PhD candidate at Columbia Business School and lead author on the study, tested participants’ creativity in a similar way by giving them objects and asking them to come up with as many names to creatively market the products as possible in a set period of time — a task at which those with past intercultural romances excelled.

Not all intercultural experiences have the same effect on creativity, however. “In another study, we’ve found that people who have lived abroad had an increase in creativity, but travel abroad has very little effect,” says Galinsky. Similarly, Galinsky explains, “people who had deep connections with someone from another culture experience growth in creativity — but not people with shallow connections to those from other cultures.”

The difference, the study’s authors suggest, comes down to engagement. While people are naturally exposed to different ideas and experiences as part of their day-to-day existence, it’s the desire to learn about and incorporate that information that sparks greater creativity. That explains why deep intercultural relationships can have a particularly potent effect on people’s creative juices. “The deeper your connection, the deeper your understanding of this other culture, the more creative you’re going to become,” explains Galinsky. For example, the longer participants had been in intercultural relationships, the more creative they were.

Intercultural experience helps people learn that “the same situation can be viewed from a completely different perspective,” Galinsky says. It’s not simply a matter of recognizing that different cultures do things differently, but actually understanding why, something people have more opportunity — and more incentive — to do when they are in a deep relationship with someone from another culture.

People looking to improve their creativity then, should push themselves not merely to observe differences but to ask why they exist. Learn how to see things in your daily life a little differently, and you may find you see things differently in your work as well.

About the researcher

Adam Galinsky

Adam Galinsky is currently the chair of the Management Division and the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. Read more.

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