In today’s increasingly globalized world, more and more people are choosing to live, work and study abroad—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. Read the complete article with PK Halder and explore more information about different countries.

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Living Abroad Is Associated with a Clearer Sense of Self

We tested our hypothesis that living abroad will increase self-concept clarity across six studies involving 1,874 participants. In the first study, we recruited 296 people online, half of whom had lived abroad for a minimum of three months, and half of whom had not. All participants completed a well-established measure of self-concept clarity, which asked for their level of agreement.


Psychological effects

To better understand the psychological effects of living abroad, we set out to examine whether and how international experiences can transform a person’s sense of self. Specifically, we focused on “self-concept clarity,” the extent to which someone’s understanding of himself or herself is “clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and temporally stable”.

Measuring self-concept clarity

Of course, one possible explanation for this finding is that people who choose to live abroad have a clearer sense of self to begin with compared to people who never intend to do so. To help rule out this explanation, we conducted a second study in which we compared 136 people who had lived abroad with 125 people who had signed up to live abroad, for professional assignments or study abroad opportunities, but had not done so yet.

Demographic measures

We also controlled for a variety of demographic and psychological measures, such as age, gender, marital status, socioeconomic status, and personality traits. Once again, we found that people who had lived abroad reported a clearer sense of self than people who had not lived abroad yet, but intended to do so within the next year.

 Self-Discerning Reflections

Next, we wanted to identify why living abroad increases self-concept clarity. In the study we just described, we found evidence that people’s self-discerning reflections—musings on whether parts of their identity truly define who they are or merely reflect their cultural upbringing—are a critical ingredient in the relationship between living abroad and self-concept clarity. We developed a new scale to measure these reflections, and our data showed that people who had lived abroad had engaged in them more than people who had never lived abroad.

Core values and behavior

So why are self-discerning reflections more likely to happen when living abroad? Well, when people live in their home country, they are often surrounded by others who mostly behave in similar ways, 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.

Depth of Living Abroad Experiences 

In subsequent studies, we recruited large samples of MBA students who had, on average, spent almost three years living abroad. These samples allowed for a more nuanced investigation of the relationship between living abroad and self-concept clarity. In particular, we were interested in examining whether the depth of international experiences (the total length of time lived abroad) or the breadth of these experiences (the number of countries lived in) boosted self-concept clarity.

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A Clearer Sense of Self Leads to More-Congruent Feedback

What implications might these findings have for the corporate world? One possible consequence is that a clearer sense of self might produce a 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 highly prevalent, with some estimates indicating that around 90% of large organizations use them, and mismatched ratings are associated with a range of negative job-related outcomes.

It Also Leads to Clearer Career Decisions

Our work also has important implications for career management. Studies have shown that in today’s complex vocational world, the vast majority of people will experience difficulty in making important career choices at some point in their lives, and deciding what to do with their careers after graduation is one of the biggest challenges for MBA students.

Limitations and Future Directions

Overall, we found consistent evidence for the positive effect of living abroad on self-concept clarity across different groups (online panels and MBA students from many different countries), methods (correlational and experimental), and measures of self-concept clarity (self-reports and 360-degree ratings). One caveat is that we cannot conclusively rule out the possibility that the effect could also go in the other direction and that a clear sense of self can also predispose people to live abroad.

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Self- concept design

The most stringent causal test of our arguments would entail randomly assigning people to live abroad or to remain in their home country and then tracking their levels of self-concept clarity; not surprisingly, this type of design was beyond the scope of what we could do with these particular studies.

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Exploration of living abroad

One interesting direction for future research would be to explore when living abroad does not lead to a clearer sense of self. A fairly common reaction of expatriates is to undergo an initial phase of “culture shock”—the “anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse’’.

Overcome anxiety 

It is plausible that if people never overcome this anxiety, living abroad would likely be an alienating and bewildering experience that prevents them from developing a clear sense of self and reaping the range of benefits that come with it. Most people, however, eventually overcome this phase. As they get used to their new cultural surroundings, their experiences likely resemble those of the late Michael Crichton, who captures the spirit of our research in his autobiographical book, Travels.