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.