The Edge Effect
How exercising your own outsider’s perspective can boost your creativity - proven by science.
Creativity is defined as “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something”. While many would agree that creativity is the result of insight, as you can probably guess, I am here to advocate for the role of outsight in that mix.
I mean, if creativity is one’s ability to perceive the world in new ways, find hidden patterns, make connections, and then generate solutions, how can we NOT talk about outsights, right?
To me, creativity is not just about what you already know - but instead is about the combination of tapping into your ‘inner’ pool of resources and the enlightenment you can gain from an external knowledge or situation.
Adding that external factor into the mix can be what will give your idea an edge. And this is not just me saying it - there is actual science behind it. Hear me out.
In ecology, there is a term called The Edge Effect, which represents the explosion of life that happens when two ecosystems collide. Think about the savanna and the desert, for example. That region, where the two adjacent habitats meet, is where you’ll encounter the greater diversity of life. New creatures, that fast adapted to their environments, suddenly exist in this overlap area - it’s where life multiplies.
Basically, the Edge Effect is nature getting creative - isn’t that amazing?
And we see a similar phenomenon with humans too - those who immerse themselves in a “habitat” that is not their original environment, seem to have an edge to their creativity, according to several studies.
Adam Galinsky, a social scientist and professor at Columbia University, has done numerous research on the topic and his findings are fascinating. His experiments prove that immersing yourself in different cultures truly does impact creativity - but the depth of the cultural immersion matters more than breadth.
“There is something about deeply understanding and learning about another culture that is transformative.” Adam Galinsky
Prof. Galinsky and his team started by looking at 11 years worth of Fashion Week collections, from 270 of the world’s top fashion houses - and then they looked at the life and career stories of the creative directors for each of these fashion houses.
What they found was that the longer a person lived abroad - not how many countries they’ve been to or time spent traveling, but time *actually* living abroad - the more creative the collections. Those who lived abroad had more opportunities to immerse themselves in another culture and that seemed to have more impact on their creativity than simply being exposed to different cultures, as those who have only traveled abroad.
In another experiment, the team observed a group of students in a 10-month international MBA program. The scientists found that the extent to which the students adapted and learned about the new culture, predicted the number of job offers the students received after the program (even when controlling personality/demographic variables). This indicated that the students who adapted and embraced the new culture the most were the ones performing better at interviews, likely showing more innovative problem-solving skills and projecting a more clear image of themselves.
Personally, living abroad has certainly impacted my life and how I see the world, forever. However, while living abroad makes it easier for you to immerse yourself in a different culture, it's not the only way to do it - after all, we do live in a globalized world with currently 272 million international migrants according to the UN, and it has never been easier to connect with these communities in your own country.
So even if you never leave your corner of the world, as long as you find a way to discover and deeply understand another culture, exercising and reflecting on your outsider’s perspective, you’ll surely be able to reap the benefits of that experience towards your creativity, as Professor Galinsky explains:
“You don’t have to go abroad to get some of the creativity benefits of having that intercultural contact, you can get that same benefit here in the US by embracing and engaging with people from other culture. But again, there’s the catch, that it can’t just be superficial, you’ve gotta more deeply connect to the people from other culture to get transformational impact in that experience”. Adam Galinsky
To prove his point, the professor and his team decided to talk to people in multicultural relationships in the US, and the findings showed that those in romantic intercultural relationships performed substantially better in creative tasks than those in relationships with people with similar backgrounds or even those in non-romantic intercultural friendships. That confirmed that, when you’re romantically involved with someone, you naturally immerse yourself more in the other person’s culture than you would in a friendship, which meant a deeper experience (and therefore enhanced creativity).
They also concluded that simply asking someone to think about a previous romantic intercultural relationship, even just reflecting on that experience, offered a temporary boost in creativity.
Professor Galinsky explained, “We can get that [boost in creativity] from living abroad, we can get that from dating someone from another culture, we could even get it from traveling, but only if we really learned and understood and embraced and adapted to that other culture while we were traveling abroad”.
“The big scientific conclusion, that is very robust, is that is about really, truly, deeply understanding another culture is the key to enhancing your own creativity”. Adam Galinsky
Humans are naturally curious and imaginative, and I strongly believe everyone has untapped creative potential, regardless of your career path - after all creativity is needed in every field; from engineering to politics, from medicine to marketing.
The more you exercise that outsider’s perspective, the easier will be for you to see those hidden connections, and the more refined your insights + outsights combo will get. As the experiments have shown, it's not just being exposed that makes you creative, but having an open outlook and embracing the differences.
And this is just not at the level of individuals, but also at the level of communities and even nations. Professor Adam Galinsky speculates: “Consider this, the US, a country that accounts for about 5% of the world's population, has won about 60% of all the Nobel prizes ever awarded” - could that be related to the waves of immigrants the country has received overtime? Like Adam, I’d like to believe so.
With all this scientific evidence, I rest my case: it’s clear to me that leaning into outsights can give an edge to your creativity - and who doesn’t want that, right?
Rabbit Hole links:
NPR, Hidden Brain Podcast, The Edge Effect episode, original broadcast in July 2018, re-run broadcast in July 2020.
Maddux, W., and Adam Galinsky. “Cultural borders and mental barriers: The relationship between living abroad and creativity.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96 (2009): 1047-1061.
Adam Galinsky “Why Hiring Creative Directors with Experience Abroad Can Lead Fashion Houses to New Creative Heights”, Columbia Newsroom Press Release, 2015.
Maddux, W., H. Adam, and Adam Galinsky. "When in Rome . . . Learn why the Romans do what they do: How multicultural learning experiences facilitate creativity." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36, no. 6 (2010): 731-740.
Maddux, W., E. Bivolaru, A. Hafenbrack, C. Tadmor, and Adam Galinsky. "Expanding opportunities by opening your mind: Multicultural engagement predicts job market success through longitudinal increases in integrative complexity." Social Psychological and Personality Science 5, no. 5 (July 2014): 608-615.
Lu, J.G., A.C. Hafenbrack, W.W. Maddux, P.W. Eastwick, D. Wang, and Adam Galinsky. "'Going Out' of the box: Close intercultural friendships and romantic relationships spark creativity, workplace innovation, and entrepreneurship." Journal of Applied Psychology 102 (2017): 1091-1108. PDF here.
Shannon Bayer, “What Is the Edge Effect? How Collaborating Helps Us Thrive”, 2018
Work the World, “Why living abroad will make you smarter”
TIME, Annie Murphy Paul, “How Studying or Working Abroad Makes You Smarter”, 2014.
Forbes, Jessica Mendoza, “Study Reveals Living Abroad Boosts Your Decision Making Clarity”, 2019.
Greater Good Magazine, Berkeley University, Katherine W. Phillips, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter”, 2017.