Study: Living abroad leads to a clearer sense of self

March 20, 2018, Rice University
Credit: Bill Kuffrey/public domain

Living abroad can clarify your sense of self, according to new research by a team of social scientists at Rice University, Columbia University and the University of North Carolina.

They found living abroad increases "self-concept clarity," the extent to which individuals' beliefs about themselves are clearly and confidently defined and consistent and stable over time.

The researchers are Hajo Adam and Otilia Obodaru of Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business; Jackson Lu and Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School; and William Maddux of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. They conducted six studies involving 1,874 participants and published their findings in "The Shortest Path to Oneself Leads Around the World: Living Abroad Increases Self-Concept Clarity" in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

To conduct the studies, the authors recruited participants from online panels and United States and international MBA programs, including some who had not lived abroad, who then completed surveys on living abroad.

The researchers found living abroad triggers self-discerning reflections in which people grapple with the different cultural values and norms of their home and host cultures. These reflections are helpful in discovering which values and norms define who people are and which simply reflect their cultural upbringing, according to the study.

"In a world where living-abroad experiences are increasingly common and technological advances make cross-cultural travel and communication ever easier, it is critical that research keeps pace with these developments and seeks to understand how they affect people," the authors wrote.

"In this vein, our studies demonstrate that living abroad affects the fundamental structure of the self-concept by enhancing its clarity. The German philosopher Hermann von Keyserling wrote in the epigraph to his 1919 book 'The Travel Diary of a Philosopher,' 'The to oneself leads around the world.' Almost 100?years later, our research provides empirical evidence in support of this idea."

While most research on foreign experiences has focused on whether people have lived abroad or not, this new research takes a more nuanced approach to distinguish between the depth and the breadth of international experiences. It finds that depth (the length of time lived abroad) rather than breadth (the number of foreign countries lived in) enhances a clear sense of self. The longer people live abroad, the more self-discerning reflections they accumulate and, as a result, the more likely they are to develop a better understanding of themselves and have increased clarity about career decision-making, the authors said.

Understanding the impact of living abroad has practical implications for organizations as they operate across national borders and recruit foreign talent.

Past studies have found that transitional experiences, such as getting divorced or losing a job, typically decrease individuals' self-concept clarity. In contrast, this research examines the possibility that living abroad is a rare kind of transitional experience that actually increases self-concept clarity.

Extended periods of time spent in a foreign country can yield numerous benefits that come with a clear sense of self, ranging from greater life satisfaction to decreased stress, improved job performance and - as the new research shows - enhanced clarity about the types of careers that best match an individual's strengths and values. Having a clear sense of self could thus become increasingly important in today's world with its unprecedented range of available career options, according to the authors.

Explore further: Experiencing different cultures enhances creativity

More information: Hajo Adam et al. The shortest path to oneself leads around the world: Living abroad increases self-concept clarity, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2018.01.002

Related Stories

When in Rome: Study-abroad students increase alcohol intake

October 11, 2010

For most American students, spending a semester or two studying in a foreign country means the opportunity to improve foreign language skills and become immersed in a different culture. For others, studying abroad is more ...

Recommended for you

Fat from 558 million years ago reveals earliest known animal

September 20, 2018

Scientists from The Australian National University (ANU) and overseas have discovered molecules of fat in an ancient fossil to reveal the earliest confirmed animal in the geological record that lived on Earth 558 million ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Mar 20, 2018
Living abroad can clarify your sense of self

Not surprising but nice to know that there is objective data to back it up. Yes, how else are you going to know what is general human behavior and what is specific to you than to be exposed to a culture where the differences are more pronounced? If you always live inside a (cultural) bubble you'll never see which parts are basic across cultures, which ones have equivalent alternatives in other cultures...and which ones you never realized were stone-cold crazy in your own culture.
Cusco
not rated yet Mar 20, 2018
In larger or more diversified countries it might be sufficient for the individual simply to travel to a different cultural milieu within the same country, such as from Alabama to Seattle, or a small Andean farming community to the capital.
pntaylor
5 / 5 (1) Mar 21, 2018
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
(Mark Twain - Innocents Abroad)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.