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Psychology | Peer-Reviewed Research

Up, Up And Away

How Living Abroad Can Clarify Your Sense Of Self

Based on research by Hajo Adam (former Rice Business professor), Otilia Obodaru (former Rice Business professor), Jackson G. Lu, William W. Maddux and Adam D. Galinksy 

How Living Abroad Can Clarify Your Sense Of Self

  • New research shows that foreign travel helps to strengthen our idea of ourselves – a notion called “self-concept clarity.”
  • Living abroad helps build a clearer sense of self because it inspires us to better understand the differences between who we are and who we were taught to be.
  • It’s not the number of countries visited, but the amount of time spent abroad that builds self-clarity. The longer the time in another country, the clearer the sense of self.

Imagine yourself on a singular adventure in a foreign country. The mere thought of it inspires a certain vitality: From Moses to Odysseus to Alexander the Great, leaders have traversed the horizon in order to become their true selves.  

Researchers have already documented how foreign experiences fire creativity, shrink prejudice and accelerate career success. But these studies are the embarkation point of a larger effort tracing the psychological ramifications of travel abroad. That research suggests we’re just beginning to learn how formative living in another country can be.  

In a recent study, former Rice Business professors Hajo Adam and Otilia Obodaru studied the role of experience abroad upon “self-concept clarity” ⁠— our inner concepts of ourselves. Living abroad, they hypothesized, boosts self-concept clarity because it challenges us to understand who we are ⁠— as opposed to who we were raised to become. The researchers believe that it isn’t how many countries one visits that prompts such reflection, but rather the intensity and length of time spent beyond borders. 

Why should any of this matter when it comes to business? Extensive research already links self-concept clarity to an array of positive outcomes from well-being to physical health. Moreover, Adam and Obodaru show that a strong sense of who you are and what you want also represents the kind of thinking critical to making smart decisions regarding career choices. Foreign travel, they posit, builds the clarity necessary to know what we really want out of our working lives.

To test their theory, Adam and Obodaru joined Adam G. Galisnsky of Columbia Business School, Jackson G. Lu of MIT's Sloan School of Management and William W. Maddux of the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School to conduct six studies involving 1,874 people, among them MBA students from various countries and participants online. The intricate investigation went through a series of different phases.

First, the researchers explored whether people who had lived abroad reported higher self-concept clarity than individuals who had not lived abroad. In addition, they examined if self-concept clarity was stronger for people who had lived abroad was stronger than for those who simply wanted to but had not yet done so. 

The research wasn’t limited to how the respondents saw themselves. Using a 360-degree rating system, the scholars compared the respondents’ self-image with their colleagues’ descriptions of them. Finally, the researchers studied whether deep and broad living experiences abroad were in fact an indictor of clearer decision-making capacity.

In virtually every study, the results echoed each other. Experience abroad increased the respondents’ self-concept clarity. This effect was not transitory, but shaped how the respondents constructed their identity over a period of time. 

Even on the best of adventures, experience in a new culture can be stressful. Yet the research shows that the challenge of living abroad offers powerful benefits. In contrast to the stress associated with disruptive experiences like losing one’s job or getting divorced, the researchers found that spending time abroad had a lasting positive value for a clear sense of self.

So the next time you plan a venture abroad ⁠— whether it’s a year in Paris or a prolonged work stint over the border ⁠— consider that your experience may not just be an adventure. It may mean more clarity about yourself and your next job. 

Hajo Adam and Otilia Obodaru are former assistant professors of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. 

For more information please see: Adam, H., Obodaru, O., Lu, J. G., Maddux, W. W., & Galinksy, A. D. (2018). The shortest path to oneself leads around the world: Living abroad increases self-concept clarity. Organization Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 145, 16-29. 

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