In today’s increasingly globalized 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 enhance creativity, reduce intergroup bias, and promote career success.
To better understand the psychological effects of living abroad, we set out to examine whether and how international experiences can transform a person’s sense of self. Specifically, we focused on “self-concept clarity,” the extent to which someone’s understanding of himself or herself is “clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and temporally stable”. Self-concept clarity has been linked to a host of benefits, such as psychological well-being, the ability to cope with stress, and job performance, but research on how it can be cultivated is very limited.
Most studies have found that transitional experiences, such as job changes or romantic breakups, typically decrease self-concept clarity. However, all five of us have lived abroad at some point in our lives, and we all felt that we gained a clearer sense of who we are as a result. So we wondered whether living abroad is a unique kind of transitional experience that may actually increase self-concept clarity.
Living Abroad Is Associated with a Clearer Sense of Self
We tested our hypothesis that living abroad will increase self-concept clarity across six studies involving 1,874 participants. In the first study, we recruited 296 people online, half of whom had lived abroad for a minimum of three months, and half of whom had not. All participants completed a well-established measure of self-concept clarity, which asked for their level of agreement with questions such as “In general, I have a clear sense of who I am and what I am” and “I seldom experience conflict between the different aspects of my personality” (see sidebar). We found that people who had lived abroad reported a clearer sense of self than people who had not.