Can Living Abroad Boost Self-Awareness?

The longer expatriates live abroad, the greater their 'self-concept clarity.'
Expatriate Know Thyself

WHO ARE YOU, REALLY? If the answer to that question seems elusive, a new study suggests that living in another country could help, according to social scientists Hajo Adam and Otilia Obodaru of Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business in Houston, Texas; Jackson Lu and Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School in New York City; and William Maddux of Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Setting down roots in a foreign country increases “self-concept clarity,” which the research team defines as the extent to which individuals can clearly, confidently, and consistently define their beliefs about themselves over time.

The researchers conducted six studies, in which they surveyed a total of 1,874 participants recruited from online panels and MBA programs. For example, the goal of one survey was to determine whether those who had lived abroad reported greater self-concept clarity than those who had not; the goal of another was to compare the self-concept clarity of those who had lived abroad with those who planned to do so.

Many of those who had lived abroad reported that the experience, which forced them to grapple with different cultural values and norms, had caused them to be more self-aware. The researchers found that these individuals had opportunities to discover which values and norms are driven by personal choice and which are driven by cultural upbringing.

Other surveys indicated that depth, or length of time one lives abroad, contributes more to a clear sense of self than breadth, or the number of countries where one has lived. The longer people live abroad, the more time they have for self-discerning reflection and the better they understand themselves and the career paths that best match their strengths and values. This clear sense of self can yield many secondary benefits, including greater life satisfaction, decreased stress, and improved job performance.

Findings such as these are significant to educators who take students abroad for experiential projects; managers who ask staff to take posts in foreign countries; and even career counselors who guide their clients in self-exploration and career decision making, the authors note. “The German philosopher Hermann von Keyserling wrote in the epigraph to his 1919 book The Travel Diary of a Philosopher, ‘The shortest path to oneself leads around the world,” they conclude. “Almost 100 years later, our research provides empirical evidence in support of this idea.”

“The Shortest Path to Oneself Leads Around the World: Living Abroad Increases Self-Concept Clarity” appears in the March 2018 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.