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Living Abroad Develops A Clearer Sense of Self


"Study abroad is the single most effective way of changing the way we view the world." – Chantal Mitchell

In today's increasingly globalised 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 boost creativity, reduce intergroup bias, and promote career success.

In order to better understand the psychological effects of living abroad, the Harvard Business Review organisation set out to investigate whether and how international experiences can transform a person's sense of self. They focused on "self-concept clarity," which refers to how well someone understands himself or herself and how well it is "clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and temporally stable." Although self-concept clarity has been linked to a number of advantages, including psychological well-being, stress tolerance, and job performance, research on how to cultivate it is limited.

The majority of studies have found that transitional experiences, such as job changes or romantic breakups, reduce self-concept clarity. As a result, we wondered if living abroad is a unique transitional experience that can improve self-concept clarity.

Did you know?

In a survey, 98% of students said they came away with a better understanding of their cultural values and biases, as well as a more sophisticated perspective on the world and the people who live in it.

Living Abroad Is Linked to a Sharper Sense of Self

Harvard Business Review tested its hypothesis that living abroad improves self-concept clarity in six studies involving 1,874 participants. For the first study, they recruited 296 people online, half of whom had lived abroad for at least three months, and the other half had not. All participants answered questions like "In general, I have a clear self-awareness of who I am and what I am" and "I rarely experience conflict between the different aspects of my personality." People who had lived abroad reported higher levels of self-awareness than those who had not.

One possible explanation for this finding is that persons who have left their country and live abroad have a stronger sense of self than those who do not. To rule out this possibility, they conducted a second study in which they compared 136 people who had lived abroad to 125 people who had signed up to go abroad but had not yet done so for professional assignments or study abroad opportunities. They also considered demographic and psychological factors such as age, gender, marital status, socioeconomic status, and personality traits. Again, people who had lived abroad reported greater self-awareness than those who had not yet lived abroad but planned to do so within the next year.

What Do Self-Discerning Thoughts Have to Do With It?

The Harvard Business Review organisation wanted to know why living abroad improves self-concept clarity. They just described how people's self-discerning reflections—whether they truly define who they are or simply reflect their cultural upbringing—are an important component in the relationship between living abroad and self-concept clarity. They developed a new scale to evaluate these reflections, and our findings revealed that people who lived abroad had more of them than those who had never lived abroad.

So, why are self-critical thoughts more common when living abroad? On the other hand, people in their home country are frequently surrounded by others who mostly behave similarly, so they are not compelled to question whether their own behaviours reflect their core values or the values of the culture in which they live. Our findings show that when people live abroad, their exposure to new cultural values and norms prompts them to revisit their own values and beliefs, which are then either discarded or strengthened.

In another study, they used an experimental design to provide causal evidence for the relationship between living abroad and having strong self-knowledge. They recruited 116 participants online, all of whom had previously lived in another country, and randomly assigned them to one of two experimental conditions. Participants in one group were asked to reflect on their living abroad experience, while those in the other group were asked to reflect on their experience living in their home country. This method can effectively and consistently simulate the cognitive differences between living abroad and living at home.

According to the findings, participants who reflected on living abroad reported greater self-concept clarity than participants who reflected on living at home. Furthermore, as in the previous study, this difference occurred because people who wrote about their experiences living abroad remembered more self-discerning reflections.

Depth, Not Breadth, of Living Abroad Experiences Matters Most

Following studies, the Harvard Business Review organisation gathered large samples of MBA students who had spent an average of nearly three years living abroad. These samples allowed for a more nuanced investigation of the relationship between living abroad and self-concept clarity. We wanted to know if the breadth of international experiences (the number of best countries to study abroad) or the depth of these experiences (the total length of time spent abroad) improved self-concept clarity.

They expected depth to be more important than breadth because the longer people live abroad, the more opportunities they will have to engage in self-discerning reflections; however, whether these experiences take place in a single foreign country or across multiple foreign countries should be less important. A study of 559 MBA students confirmed our prediction, discovering that the depth (but not breadth) of living abroad experiences predicted greater self-awareness.

A Stronger Sense of Self Results in more Congruent Feedback

What are the ramifications of these findings for business?

A stronger sense of self may result in better alignment between how people see themselves and how others see them, which is captured by 360-degree feedback systems. Mismatched ratings are associated with a variety of negative job-related outcomes, and some estimates indicate that they are used by approximately 90% of large organisations.

The Harvard Business Review organisation then examined the congruence between 544 MBA students' self-evaluations and the evaluations of their classmates and coworkers on a variety of social dimensions and personality traits in a subsequent study. A high level of congruence indicates that students perceive themselves similarly to others. Congruence is related to self-concept clarity because people who have a clear understanding of themselves are more likely to project a clear and consistent self-image to others. In line with the previous study's findings, they discovered that the depth of living abroad experiences, rather than the breadth, predicted higher congruence between self- and other evaluations.

It Also Leads to More Informed Career Choices

Our findings have important implications for career management. According to studies, the vast majority of people will struggle to make important career decisions at some point in their lives in today's complex vocational world, and deciding what to do with their careers after graduation is one of the most difficult challenges for MBA students. It stands to reason that having a strong sense of self helps people determine which types of career options best match their strengths and values, allowing them to make more informed and confident career decisions.

They investigated the implications of the relationship between living abroad and greater self-concept clarity on future managers' career plans in a final study. They discovered that the depth of living abroad experiences, rather than the breadth, predicted a stronger sense of self in a survey of 98 international MBA students. This increased clarity about themselves translated into greater clarity about their post-graduate plans: those who lived abroad for a longer period of time were more likely to say they were certain about what they wanted to do with their careers after completing their MBA program.

Fact: Studying abroad is essential because in 2025, 45 % of the world's largest copanies will be based in emerging markets.

Limitations and Future Prospects

Overall, the Harvard Business Review found consistent evidence for a positive effect of living abroad on self-concept clarity across groups (online panels and MBA students from various countries), methods (correlational and experimental), and self-concept clarity measures (self-reports and 360-degree ratings). One caveat is that they cannot rule out the possibility that the effect could work in the opposite direction, and that having a strong sense of self can gain opportunities to live abroad. The most rigorous causal test of our arguments would involve randomly assigning people to live abroad or at home and then tracking their levels of self-concept clarity; predictably, this type of design was beyond the scope of what they could do with these specific studies.

One intriguing area for future research would be to look into why living abroad does not result in increased self-awareness. Expats frequently experience an initial phase of "culture shock"—the "anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse." If people never overcome this fear, living abroad may become an alienating and perplexing experience that prevents them from developing a strong sense of self and reaping the benefits of studying abroad.

Most people, however, progress past this stage. As they adjust to their new cultural surroundings, their experiences will most likely mirror those of the late Michael Crichton, whose autobiographical book, Travels: "I frequently feel the need to travel to a remote part of the world to be reminded of who I truly am... When you are taken away from your usual surroundings, friends, and daily routines, you are forced into direct experience, which inevitably makes you aware of who is having the experience."

Quick Fact

  • In a survey conducted by The Institute for International Education of Students (IES), 96% said that studying abroad improved their self-confidence and broadened their worldview.
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