Do Multicultural Experiences Make People More Creative? If So, How?

Taken together, these results show that exposure to multiple cultures can increase the fluency in generating creative ideas. In the experiment, the creative benefits were observed in creativity tasks that did not require knowledge of the cultures the participants were exposed to. Moreover, the benefits remained when creativity was tested again several days after the exposure. It seems likely that the exposure has led to the development of some cognitive skills (e.g., a spontaneous tendency to extensive memory search unconventional solutions) that underlie creative performance. Furthermore, exposure to multiple cultures produced creative benefits only when both American and Chinese cultures were presented simultaneously. This finding is consistent with idea that holding seemingly incompatible ideas from two cultures in cognitive juxtaposition invites engagement in creative conceptual expansion, a cognitive process that is known to increase creative performance.

Similar results were obtained when the extent of multicultural experiences was measured rather than manipulated. Among European American undergraduates, some have more multicultural experiences than others. For example, some have spent time outside their home State, can speak a foreign language, have parents who were born outside the United States, have close friends from other friends, and like music and culinary arts in foreign cultures. These undergraduates tended to be more fluent in generating creative ideas than those who fewer multicultural experiences (Leung & Chiu, 2007b).

In addition, consistent with the idea that multicultural experiences foster a tendency to search one’s memory for unconventional solutions, another study (Leung & Chiu, 2007a, Study 2) showed that when asked what they would consider if they would present a gift to their friend, those with richer multicultural experiences more readily generated unconventional gift ideas than those with less multicultural experiences.

Close-mindedness is an obstacle to creativity. Compared to open-minded individuals, close-minded individuals are less motivated to search their memory for culturally unfamiliar ideas (Ip, Chen, & Chiu, 2006) and are less creative (Rietzschel, De Dreu, & Nijstad, 2007). Can open-mindedness be learned? Does exposure to multicultural experiences render people more open to ideas from other cultural traditions? One study (Leung & Chiu, 2007a, Study 3) found that when asked to develop an ordinary idea (e.g., “People who have more friends are happier”) into a creative one, European American undergraduates with richer multicultural experiences were more motivated to consult ideas originated from East Asian and Middle Eastern cultures.

However, being open is a state of mind. When people are overwhelmed by the amount of uncertainty in the environment, they would crave for a firm answer and close their mind to unfamiliar ideas. When this happens, the motivation to consider ideas from other cultures will be hampered even among those with rich multicultural experiences (Leung & Chiu, 2007a, Studies 4 and 5).

To conclude, the increased level of global connectivity in contemporary societies has presented new opportunities for acquiring multicultural experiences. Not surprisingly, psychologists are increasingly aware of the need to understand the relationship between multicultural experiences and intellectual development (Chiu & Hong, 2005). A major research question in multicultural competence research concerns the potential beneficial effects of multicultural experiences on creativity and cognitive flexibility. Contemporary research on this topic has identified at least three ways multicultural experiences can increase creativity. First, it can liberate people from their mental sets by providing intellectual materials and opportunities for creative conceptual expansion. Second, it can foster the development of the cognitive skills that give rise to creative performance. Finally, it can increase people’s receptiveness to ideas from other cultures.


Chiu, C-y., & Hong, Y. (2005). Cultural competence: Dynamic processes. In A. Elliot & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and competence (pp. 489-505). New York: Guilford.


Hampton, J. A. (1997). Emergent attributes in combined concepts. In T. B. Ward, S. M. Smith, & J. Vaid (Eds.), Creative thought: An investigation of conceptual structures and processes (pp. 83-110). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Ip, G. W-m., Chen, J., & Chiu, C-y. (2006). The relationship of promotion focus, need for cognitive closure, and categorical accessibility in American and Hong Kong Chinese university students. Journal of Creative Behavior, 40, 201-215.

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