More and more people are choosing to live, work, and study abroad in today’s increasingly globalized world—and this trend appears to be a good thing: social science studies have shown that international experiences can enhance creativity, reduce intergroup bias, and promote career success.
Harvard Business Review organisation set out to investigate whether and how international experiences can transform a person’s sense of self in order to better understand the psychological effects of living abroad. They concentrated on “self-concept clarity,” which is the degree to which someone’s understanding of himself or herself is “clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and temporally stable.” Self-concept clarity has been linked to a variety of benefits, including psychological well-being, stress tolerance, and job performance, but research on how to cultivate it is scarce.
Most studies have discovered that transitional experiences, such as job changes or romantic breakups, tend to reduce self-concept clarity. So we wondered if living abroad is a special kind of transitional experience that can improve self-concept clarity.
In six studies involving 1,874 participants, Harvard Business Review organisation tested their hypothesis that living abroad improves self-concept clarity. They recruited 296 people online for the first study, half of whom had lived abroad for at least three months and the other half had not. All participants completed a well-established measure of self-concept clarity, which included questions like “In general, I have a clear self awareness of who I am and what I am” and “I rarely experience conflict between the different aspects of my personality”. People who had lived abroad reported a stronger self awareness than those who had not.
One possible explanation for this finding is that people who choose to live abroad have a stronger sense of self than those who never intend to do so. To rule out this possibility, they conducted a second study in which they compared 136 people who had lived abroad to 125 people who had signed up to go abroad, for professional assignments or study abroad opportunities, but had not yet done so. They also took into account a number of demographic and psychological factors, including age, gender, marital status, socioeconomic status, and personality traits. Again, they discovered that people who had lived abroad reported a stronger self awareness than those who had not yet lived abroad but planned to do so within the next year.
Harvard Business Review organisation then wanted to figure out why living abroad improves self-concept clarity. They just described that people’s self-discerning reflections—whether parts of their identity truly define who they are or merely reflect their cultural upbringing—are an important component in the relationship between living abroad and self-concept clarity. They created a new scale to assess these reflections, and our findings revealed that people who had lived abroad had more of them than people who had never lived abroad.
So, why are self-critical reflections more likely when living abroad? People in their home country, on the other hand, are frequently surrounded by others who mostly behave similarly, so they are not compelled to question whether their own behaviors reflect their core values or the values of the culture in which they are embedded. Our data show that when people live abroad, their exposure to novel cultural values and norms prompts them to repeatedly engage with their own values and beliefs, which are then either discarded or strengthened.
They used an experimental design in another study to provide causal evidence for the relationship between living abroad and having a strong self knowledge. They recruited 116 participants online, all of whom had previously lived abroad, and assigned them at random to one of two experimental conditions. Participants in one condition were asked to reflect on their experience living abroad, while participants in the other condition were asked to reflect on their experience living in their home country. This method can effectively and consistently simulate the cognitions of living abroad versus living at home.
Participants who reflected on living abroad reported greater self-concept clarity than participants who reflected on living at home, according to the findings. Furthermore, as in the previous study, this difference occurred because people who wrote about living abroad recalled more self-discerning reflections.
In subsequent studies, Harvard Business Review organisation gathered large samples of MBA students who had spent nearly three years living abroad on average. These samples enabled a more nuanced investigation of the relationship between living abroad and clarity of self-concept. We were particularly interested in determining whether the breadth of international experiences (the number of best countries to study abroad) or the depth of these experiences (the total length of time spent abroad) improved self-concept clarity.
They anticipated that depth would be more important than breadth because the longer people live abroad, the more opportunities they will have to engage in self-discerning reflections; however, whether these experiences occur in a single abroad country or across multiple foreign countries should be less important. A study of 559 MBA students confirmed our prediction, finding that the depth (but not the breadth) of living abroad experiences predicted a stronger self knowledge.
What are the implications of these findings for the business world? A clearer sense of self may result in better alignment between how people see themselves and how others see them, both of which are captured in 360-degree feedback systems. These systems have become widely used, with some estimates indicating that they are used by approximately 90% of large organizations, and mismatched ratings are associated with a variety of negative job-related outcomes.
In a subsequent study, Harvard Business Review organisation examined the congruence between 544 MBA students’ self-evaluations and the evaluations of their classmates and coworkers on a variety of social dimensions and personality traits. A high level of congruence indicates that students perceive themselves in the same way that others perceive them. Congruence is related to self-concept clarity because people are more likely to project a clear and consistent self-image to others when they have a clear understanding of themselves. In line with the previous study’s findings, they discovered that the depth—rather than the breadth—of living abroad experiences predicted higher congruence between self- and other-evaluations.
Our research has significant implications for career management. According to studies, in today’s complex vocational world, the vast majority of people will struggle to make important career decisions at some point in their lives, and deciding what to do with their careers after graduation is one of the most difficult challenges for MBA students. It stands to reason that having a strong sense of self elucidates which types of career options best match one’s strengths and values, allowing people to make more informed and confident career decisions.
In a final study, they investigated the implications of the relationship between living abroad and greater self-concept clarity on the career plans of future managers. In a survey of 98 international MBA students, they discovered that the depth of living abroad experiences, rather than the breadth, predicted a stronger sense of self. This increased clarity about themselves translated into increased clarity about their post-graduate plans: those who lived abroad for a longer period of time were more likely to say they were clear about what they wanted to do with their careers after their MBA program.
Overall, Harvard Business Review organisation found consistent evidence for a positive effect of living abroad on self-concept clarity across groups (online panels and MBA students from a variety of countries), methods (correlational and experimental), and self-concept clarity measures (self-reports and 360-degree ratings). One caveat is that they cannot rule out the possibility that the effect could also go the other way, and that having a strong sense of self can predispose people to live abroad. The most rigorous causal test of our arguments would entail randomly assigning people to live abroad or in their home country and then tracking their levels of self-concept clarity; predictably, this type of design was beyond the scope of what they could do with these specific studies.
One intriguing area for future research would be to investigate why living abroad does not result in a stronger self knowledge. An initial phase of “culture shock”—the “anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse”—is a fairly common reaction of expatriates. It is possible that if people never overcome this fear, living abroad will be an alienating and befuddling experience that prevents them from developing a strong sense of self and reaping the benefits of studying abroad that come with it.
Most people, however, eventually get past this stage. As they adjust to their new cultural surroundings, their experiences will most likely mirror those of the late Michael Crichton, who captures the spirit of our research in his autobiographical book, Travels: “Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am… When you are removed from your normal surroundings, friends, and daily routines, you are forced into direct experience, which inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience.”
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