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In a recent episode of the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain, host Shankar Vedantam asks: “What happens when people put themselves in contact with difference?” The answers might surprise you.

The episode explores the connections between creativity and diversity, and begins with Harvard economist Richard Freeman’s observation that, at least in the US, scientists tend to “stick to their own kind.”

“You’d see Chinese folk concentrated in one lab, Indian folk concentrated in another lab, and Europeans of different groups associating more with their compatriots,” Freeman says. Knowing that people who are alike also tend to think alike, and that science productivity improves when a variety of views and perspectives come together, Freeman wondered if he could find evidence that more diverse groups produced better science.

To test this idea, Freeman looked first at scientific research publications and then specifically at citations, with the understanding that the better the publication, the more often it would be cited. He compared papers published by authors of the same ethnicity to those by more diverse groups of authors. What he found was that the papers most often cited, those with the most prestige, were collaborations by a mix of people with different backgrounds.

…the papers most often cited, those with the most prestige, were collaborations by a mix of people with different backgrounds.

The podcast goes on to describe how, in a variety of contexts, including music, fashion and business, the link between diversity and creativity is borne out.

In a set of studies described by social psychologist and Columbia University business professor Adam Galinsky, researchers measured creativity in groups of business students who had in the past dated someone from another country and someone from their own country. Over a number of different studies, the students were assigned to a group and asked to reflect either on their relationship with someone from another country or their relationship with someone from their own country.

…in a variety of contexts, including music, fashion and business, the link between diversity and creativity is borne out.

And consistently, on measures such as flexibility and novelty of ideas, the students who recalled their relationship with someone from another country outperformed their colleagues who reflected on their relationship with someone from their own country.

As convincing as these results were in linking intercultural relationships and diversity with creativity, Galinsky wondered if they would hold up in the real world.

They did. Galinsky was able to reference additional data from Tufts University that had surveyed a large number of people who’d lived and worked in the US on a work visa, about the depth and frequency of their intercultural contact and what kind of work they were doing since returning to their own country.

…really, truly, deeply understanding another culture is the key to enhancing your own creativity.
– Adam Galinsky

The data showed that the subjects’ depth and frequency of intercultural contact “predicts real-world, consequential creativity measures, the probability that they became an entrepreneur, started their own business, and how much they had changed and transformed and innovated in their own companies, ” Galinsky says. “The big scientific conclusion that is very robust is that … really, truly, deeply understanding another culture is the key to enhancing your own creativity.”

If you are one of the nearly 50 percent of the Gen Zeds who plan to start a business, how might you apply this knowledge to real life?

Studying or working abroad are sure ways to understand and establish a deep connection with people from another culture. But there are other ways too, and they’re closer to home. Most large cities have a high immigrant population, and engaging with and understanding a culture other than your own will improve your intercultural competence and potentially boost your creativity.

If you’d like to find out more about intercultural competence, have a look at our international education courses at Queen’s Professional Studies.