Are Immigrants More Creative?

A provocative claim: in any country, immigrants are statistically more likely to generate exceptionally creative works. There’s a long list of immigrant geniuses: Victor Hugo, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolas Tesla, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein. But single cases don’t make a scientific argument. Do we have any statistical data on this?

Eric Weiner gives us some numbers in today’s Wall Street Journal:

An awful lot of brilliant minds blossomed in alien soil. That is especially true of the U.S., where foreign-born residents account for only 13% of the population but hold nearly a third of all patents and a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans.

Those are some pretty convincing numbers, somewhere between a 12 and 20 percent increase in creativity among immigrants.

Creativity research has the explanation: Psychologists have shown that bigger creative insights result from distant associations–when your mind has many different types of knowledge, a diverse range of experiences. Associations between similar conceptual material also often lead to creative insights, but those are more likely to be ordinary, incremental, everyday sorts of creativity. It’s the distant associations that lead to radical, breakthrough innovation. Weiner makes a similar argument from recent research; studies show that “schema violations” result in greater “cognitive flexibility,” and that cognitive flexibility is linked to creativity.

Weiner says that it’s marginality  that results in greater creativity. I wouldn’t say it that way; you can be marginal to a culture and yet not be a part of your own separate culture. The silent introvert who lives in a shack up in the mountains is marginal, but that person doesn’t bring together distinct bodies of experiences and knowledge. In fact, we know that lone individuals are less  likely to be creative.

The lesson for everyone is: If you seek greater creativity, then go out and learn something new. Meet people very different from you. Travel to a really different place. Read magazines that you’ve never looked at before. Fill your mind with a broad range of really different stuff. You don’t have to be an immigrant; but we can learn from this example to help enhance our own creativity.

7 thoughts on “Are Immigrants More Creative?

  1. A lot of those studies, which I do not believe, are based on the false idea that persons with foreign names are immigrants. Be very careful about believing anything by Wahdwa, Peri, and the other pimps for increased H-1B visas, since there are vested interests in promoting more work visas.

    1. Weiner’s newspaper article doesn’t have academic citations, but his data is presented as comparing “foreign-born” with nothing about last names. Weiner’s article has been criticized by others for using this data to argue for more open immigration; it’s a fair criticism, because he ends the article by saying “as we wrestle with our own immigration and refugee policies, we would be wise to view the welcome mat not as charity but, rather, as enlightened self-interest.” But in your comment, it seems you’re responding to another conversation (who are Wahdwa and Peri? Who said anything about foreign names? Or H-1B visas?). This blog is about creativity, so let’s switch the topic to government policies surrounding patents, as in this recent decision in the news: Cuozzo Speed Technologies(“now for something completely different…”)

  2. […] “…studies show that “schema violations” result in greater “cognitive flexibility,” and that cognitive flexibility is linked to creativity.” Reference to the  2011 study led by the Dutch psychologist Simone Ritter and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology described by Eric Weiner, Wall Street Journal. My original source: Dr. R. Keith Sawyer, creativity expert, Morgan Distinguished Professor in Educational Innovations at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. […]

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