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

MacDonalds' Rice-burger in Asia; Starbucks’ Coffee Mooncake in Singapore; Disneyland Yin-Yang Mickey Mouse Cookies in Hong Kong; Lay's Peking Duck Flavored Potato Clip … The list can go on. What is common in all these examples is that they are all novel product ideas created by integrating seemingly non-overlapping cultural or product ideas from Eastern and Western cultures.

Combining seemingly non-overlapping ideas from different cultures is an example of  creative conceptual expansion, a term in cognitive psychology that refers to the process of extending the conceptual boundaries of an existing concept by synthesizing it with other seemingly irrelevant concepts (Ward, Smith, & Vaid , 1997). Creative conceptual expansion is an ordinary process that produces extraordinary, creative results (Wan & Chiu, 2002; Ward, 2001).

Multicultural experiences increase creativity, and do so in more than one way. To begin with, multicultural experiences liberate people from their mental sets. People learn from their experiences, but experiences also create mental sets that limit creativity. When people need to solve a problem creatively in a certain conceptual domain, their cultural experiences in that domain often constrain the way they will solve the problem. For instance, undergraduates instructed to deign novel coins tend to produce coins that are strikingly similar to the attributes of known coins (Rubin & Kontis, 1983). Individuals under the instruction of using theirwildest imagination to develop creatures on Mars tend to develop creatures that resemble Earth animals (Ward, Patterson, Sifonis, Dodds, & Saunders 2002).

People break sets when they expand the conceptual boundary of a well-learned concept. For instance, when people think offurniture, culturally familiar exemplars such as tables and chairs readily come to mind. However, this mental set is breakable. For example, people can think more creatively with the concept of furniture after they have solved problems like “What is a piece of furniture that is also a kind of fruit?” This kind of problems, known to cognitive scientists as novel conceptual combinationproblems, requires the problem-solver to find an exemplar that belongs to two seemingly non-overlapping concepts. People solve these problems by crafting new instances of the concepts (furniture and fruits). As a result, the concepts’ boundaries are expanded (Hampton, 1997).

Multicultural experiences can increase creativity by providing people with both the intellectual materials and opportunities for creative conceptual expansion. Take Starbucks Coffee Mooncake as an example, the person who came up with this product idea knows the Starbucks Coffee concept in American culture and the mooncake concept in Chinese culture. Although the two concepts do not seem to be a love match at first glance, an arranged marriage has resulted in a new, innovative range of handcrafted snow-skin mooncakes – Caramel Macchiato, Cranberry Hibiscus, and Orange Citron – for the Singaporean Chinese to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.

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