We interviewed psychologist Adam Galinsky to see how travel is changing our brains
Have you ever come back from a trip overseas and felt… different?
It could be something seemingly minor, like realising that you’re actually a pretty good navigator, or you’re braver with new food cuisines. Or it could be something major – you’ve discovered a whole new talent you never knew existed, you’ve found the courage to end a dead end relationship, or maybe you’ve decided to pursue a new career path.
So what exactly causes this change? What’s going on up there in our brains that is allowing travel to have this impact on us? To find out, we interviewed Columbia Business School, Ted Talks speaker and psychologist, Adam Galinsky…
What has your research in this area uncovered about how travel positively affects attributes of our personalities?
Research has shown there are two dimensions to the travel experience that matter; the depth of the experience, and the breadth of it. Deeply engaging and learning about other cultures means we can integrate what we’ve learnt into our broader world view, whilst experiencing a variety of different kinds of multi-cultural experiences in different environments also has a significant impact.
Openness allows us to digest and take in new information without rejecting it or being defensive, and flexibility allows us to break out of entrenched habits of thinking – we can switch perspectives more easily. The ultimate consequence of this increased openness and flexibility is that people become more tolerant and more creative, as they’re better able to think more deeply and with more complexity.
What has your research uncovered about the more tangible benefits of travel?
In a recent study of MBA students, greater levels of learning about other cultures did two things – it increased the integrativeness of their thinking, and more tangibly, it led to more job offers.
Essentially travel necessitates interacting with new people, which helps our networks to diversify – we become more proficient at developing more social contacts. This research also gives study abroad programs legitimization to go to their deans and ask for more money – educational institutions have seized on the research because of the effects travel can have on students.
Do you think how long a person’s trip is, or how many countries they visit, has an impact on the effect of travel?
Longer travel naturally does tend to have stronger effects, but that’s because the longer you’re immersed in another culture, the more likely these psychological effects are to take root. The key to benefitting from the power of travel is by adopting aspects of these other cultures and world views into your own, once the trip is over.
Therefore, visiting a greater number of countries doesn’t necessarily correlate to a stronger long-term impact – what matters is the level to which one immerse yourself in a different culture. In an ideal world a traveller would have the strongest depth and breadth (many countries visited with immersive experiences in each), but most fundamental to reaping the benefits of travel is to fully engage and try to understand the places you visit.
How do differences in travellers themselves (think age, where they’re from, what they do, etc.) impact the effects of travel?
Personality can be understood by five basic dimensions – openness to experience, agreeableness, extraversion, consciousness, and neuroticism. Having higher levels of certain personality traits, such as openness to experience and extraversion, can make people more likely to travel in the first place, as well as more likely to have deep experiences that maximize travel’s positive impact.
One study found that people who went abroad grew in extraversion, grew in agreeableness, and decreased their neuroticism (all deemed positive results) upon return. Therefore, the impact of travel can be even greater for those whose pre-existing personality traits leave them with room to grow.
Your mindset maximizes the benefits – a good mindset would be to strive to engage in local customs while abroad, and to try to understand why those customs exist. Try things you wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to try. Trips are opportunities to live outside your comfort zone and grow more comfortable with yourself.
What kinds of travel experiences do you think would be most beneficial for young people today?
18-24 year-olds today have less stability in their self-concept and personality. So you could say to them, “your experiences now will help you become the person you’re going to be” – and if you choose the right experiences, you can become the person you want to be.
So travel now, because those experiences will have a greater impact on who you become later in life.
Alongside our discussion with Adam Galinsky, we also interviewed 3000 18-35 years olds to help discover all of the ways in which travel can benefit us as a human being. Our research study, The Power of Travel, has the results…