As a teenager living abroad in Indonesia, Adam Galinsky always tried to eat all the food on his dinner plate. He’d been warned that to do otherwise would be disrespectful to his Indonesian host family, as it would suggest the food was bad. Meanwhile, he’d heard that his peers in China should leave food on their plates, as it would signal they were satiated.
“I do remember doing my best to eat the food,” says the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business, “but much of it was too spicy for me! The six-year-old son of the family I stayed with would taunt me by eating chili peppers in front of me.”
It was an example of how Galinsky, who is now chair of the Management Division, was learning about the fluidity of cultural norms outside his North Carolina hometown. It was also a time when Galinsky, who has published numerous studies over the past decade on the effects of cross-cultural immersion, was coming to better understand himself by escaping his old routine.
“I felt less boxed in by habit and expectation and got to consider who I really was and who I wanted to be,” he says. “It also gave me a lot more confidence about myself.”
In a new paper, “The shortest path to oneself leads around the world: Living abroad increases self-concept clarity,” published earlier this year in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Galinsky provides evidence across six studies involving 1,874 participants that living abroad clarifies your perception about youself.
“Living abroad triggers self-discerning reflections in which people grapple with the cultural values and norms of their home and host cultures and decide which ones are truly part of their self-concept and which ones are not,” Galinsky wrote with co-authors Hajo Adam and Otilia Obodaru of Rice University, Jackson Lu of MIT, and William Maddux of the University of North Carolina. “Such reflections can ultimately enhance self-concept clarity.”
The idea that you can find yourself through deep experiences abroad is as old as The Odyssey. From Jack Kerouac’s On The Road to Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, travel literature is infused with stories of finding oneself through going outside one’s comfort zone. In his memoir Travels, Michael Crichton wrote, “Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am.”
This new research suggests that the bestselling author of Jurassic Park was more right than he realized. Summer is peak travel season and normally a time when we’re less focused on school or work and more interested in seeing the world outside our windows. But it could also be peak “self-realization” season for those who venture abroad and absorb themselves in a different culture, with benefits for personal confidence, career aspirations, and job salaries.
For the first of their six studies, the researchers polled 296 people – half of whom had lived abroad – on a 12-item Self-Concept Clarity Scale. Respondents graded themselves from one to five on questions such as, “In general, I have a clear sense of whom I am and what I am.” Those who’d lived abroad reported greater self-concept clarity.
To rule out the possibility that people with a higher sense of self are simply more likely to live abroad, the researchers then polled another 261 people, half of whom planned to live abroad and half who’d already lived abroad. Those who’d already lived abroad reported greater self-concept clarity as well as greater self-discerning reflections to question such as, “I have come to understand which beliefs and assumptions about life define who I am and which ones are just the result of my cultural upbringing.”
In a third study, the researchers tested whether simply thinking about living abroad could increase a person’s sense of self-clarity. From a group of 120 people who’d already lived abroad, half were instructed to write an essay reflecting on living abroad while the other half reflected on their home country. Those who’d reflected on living abroad reported greater self-concept clarity.
The next three studies all involved MBA students from Columbia Business School and found that length of time abroad, rather than breadth of travel abroad, had the greater impact on self-clarity. Among 564 students representing 53 different countries, those who’d lived abroad longer felt higher self-clarity than those who’d traveled a lot. Among another 544 first-year students, those who’d lived abroad longer had a higher congruence between their self-image and others’ impression of them. Among about 100 international MBA students from 37 non-US countries, those who’d lived abroad longer had a clearer idea of what they wanted to do with their careers.
“Our findings indicate that a critical factor in the relationship between living abroad and self-concept clarity is the self-discerning reflections triggered by the time spent away from home rather than the number of foreign countries lived in,” the researchers wrote.
The results are surprising because, while life transitions typically cause a decrease in self-clarity (think of switching jobs or moving to a new place), living abroad appears to be a qualitatively different kind of experience that triggers self-discerning reflections. And while there is a popular myth that living abroad causes “culture shock” of high anxiety and loss of stability, this study reframes living abroad in positive terms of self-growth.
A clearer sense of self has been linked to greater life satisfaction, decreased stress, improved job performance, and enhanced career decision-making clarity, according to the authors. The study further suggests that, for people seeking clarity on their vocational interests, living abroad may be a beneficial form of career-counseling intervention.
“If people find they’re feeling a lack of clarity, maybe the practical tip is to go abroad and try to figure out who you are again by putting yourself in different contexts and seeing how you respond,” says Galinsky.
Nearly four decades after his time in Indonesia, the professor is passing along his learning experience abroad to his own sons. They’ll be joining him and his wife on an upcoming sabbatical to Singapore and London.
“One of the things that we will do when living abroad and traveling abroad is really try to make our kids understand the different cultures and customs but also to think a little bit about why they exist,” says Galinsky. “I think that’s something that’s really important.”
Galinsky’s research was recently featured on NPR’s Hidden Brain.
Read the research
About the researcher
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.