Last week, we all got a little jealous when we heard that the creative agency ThinkPARALLAX gave its employees $1,500 each and an extra day off to travel the world in search of inspiration. “As owners of a creative agency, we’re always thinking about how to inspire creativity,” a blog post by the firm’s founders read. “Rather than send employees to conferences or a local museum, we thought, what if our whole team is ‘forced’ to travel to a place they’ve never been, to immerse themselves in a new culture and gather inspiration?”
The popular wisdom that travel stimulates creativity seems to go without thinking. Many great artists have also been great travelers; the Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso spent years living in France, while the French painter Paul Gauguin spent his childhood in Peru and many years of his adult life in Tahiti. But how much can a mere week away really impact creativity?
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence. Jonathan Hanwit, co-founder of ThinkPARALLAX, told Fast Company how his own trip to Holland and Germany helped him solve creative problems once he got back to work. “I saw a barcode in Europe designed into a certain image, not a rectangle. I saw things in signage that we can literally translate into a project we’re working on,” he enthused.
But research has not been as clear about the effects of short-term vacations. In September, the MacArthur Foundation published data linking creativity to mobility. It revealed that 79% of those who won genius grants were living outside their birth state when they received the award, compared to just 30% of the general population; additionally, over a quarter of recipients were immigrants. Unfortunately, though, the foundation’s data said nothing about how many of them took summer trips abroad.
Most empirical studies on the topic over the past few years have focused on people who actually spend time living somewhere as opposed to popping over to see the sights. In 2009, researchers William Maddux and Adam Galinsky published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that gave 210 business students a creative problem to solve. A full 60% of students who had spent time living outside their home countries solved the problem, while only 42% of those who had never lived abroad were able to do so. The researchers then did a follow-up study to test the creative negotiating skills of 72 Americans and 36 foreigners. In negotiations where both negotiators had lived abroad, 70% were able to reach a deal. In those where neither negotiator had lived abroad, none were able to do so. The researchers even studied their subjects’ personality traits and used statistical controls to filter out those who might already be creative, but the results still stood.
Similarly, in 2012, researchers at the University of Florida found a link between creativity and living abroad in their study, “On the Cognitive Benefits of Cultural Experience: Exploring the Relationship Between Studying Abroad and Creative Thinking,” published in Applied Cognitive Psychology. The researchers divided students into three groups — those who had studied abroad, those planning to do so, and those who didn’t plan to do so. They were all given a test measuring creativity. “We were excited to find that students who studied abroad generated ideas that were higher in quality and more novel in both a general as well as culture-specific measure of creativity (compared to students who did not study abroad),” the researchers wrote. But once again, the study only pertained to students who had actually moved to a new country and spent a semester navigating a foreign culture that actually benefited.
This October, researchers finally published a study in Tourism Management exploring the effects recreational travel has on creativity. “Vacation from Work: A ‘Ticket to Creativity’?: The Effects of Recreational Travel on Cognitive Flexibility and Originality” assessed a small sample size of 46 workers before and after their vacations. Though cognitive flexibility did increase, originality remained the same. The researchers concluded: “Although vacations seem to increase chances on creative insights by raising the amount of available cognitive elements (flexibility), they do not necessarily lead to higher levels of originality (uncommon, remote and clever ideas).”
It seems that deeply original creativity may be a bit harder-won. Sure, the idea of companies giving their employees cash to travel is commendable and undoubtedly beneficial. It makes them happy, improves productivity, and maybe — as in the case of ThinkPARALLAX — produces some cool new bar codes. It also helps them stay competitive in the job market, considering that many design and tech firms are now offering similarly exciting incentives. As the Fast Company article pointed out, TED gives its employees mandatory summer vacations, while Airbnb gives theirs a $2,000 travel credit.
But, considering the research, how much greater would it be for these companies and their employees if workers were allowed to spend a year or so telecommuting from a nearby timezone? That would truly be thinking outside the box.