The Voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator, according to legend this famed traveller reached North America between 512 and 530 AD
Ideas for Leaders #335

How Travelling Abroad Builds Trust and Tolerance

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Key Concept

The idea that travel can be important for personal development and ‘growth’ is well established. Spending time overseas can ‘broaden the mind’ — not only by increasing knowledge but also by reducing xenophobia. The maximum benefits, however, might depend on breadth as well as depth of experience. Recent empirical research finds a causal link between the ability to trust and accept others and exposure to a diverse range of ‘out groups’.

Idea Summary

Spending time overseas has long been associated with the development of a more open and optimistic view of humanity and the world. In his 1869 autobiographical work Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain described travel as “fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”, arguing that “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime”.

The principle is essentially simple: travel increases a sense of trust because it reduces people’s fear of others through what is nowadays termed ‘intergroup contact’. It has yet, however, to be established in research. Studies on intergroup contact are both sparse and contradictory. Some of them have shown that interaction increases trust only for the specific groups involved.

Recently published work by Jiyin Cao, Adam D. Galinsky and William M. Maddux, respectively of the Kellogg School of Management, Columbia Business School and INSEAD Paris, tests Twain’s assertion empirically. Unlike previous studies, it distinguishes between two types of ‘foreign experiences’ — depth (length of time spent abroad) and breadth (number of countries visited) — and examines their relative effects on generalized trust, defined as faith in the general ‘benevolence of human nature’.

Given the results of previous studies, Cao, Galinsky and Maddux reason that broad or diverse exposure — i.e. experiences across several foreign countries and involving multiple ‘out groups’ — is necessary for a generalized effect.

Their hypothesis is tested in five studies. These include experiments based on a trust game, and a longitudinal study looking at the effects of travel on generalized trust over time. In the former, participants are asked to play the role of someone sending a (variable) amount of money to an unknown recipient on the basis that they’ll receive a cut when the money triples in value — and their decisions correlated with details of their foreign travel experiences provided in a survey. In the latter, the level of generalized trust among a group of people is measured both before and after they travel abroad — and linked to the breadth and depth of their experiences.

The results of all five studies provide strong support for the hypothesis. Controlling for variables such as personality traits (e.g. extraversion, conscientiousness and neurosis) as well as gender, age and ethnicity, Cao, Galinsky and Maddux find that level of trust in a stranger can be predicted by how widely someone has travelled. Importantly, they also, in the longitudinal study, find a causal link between diversity of experiences abroad and generalized trust.

In other words, the research shows that the “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men”, so prized by the famously progressive Twain, result from travelling broadly.

So ‘more is more’ when it comes to experiences overseas? Not necessarily. Depth and breadth were highly correlated across all studies. This suggests that both are important and that the maximum benefits of travel derive from a balanced approach. As the researchers point out, very brief visits to multiple countries are unlikely to lead to the kinds of ‘intergroup relations’ that build generalized trust. Breadth and superficiality are not the same things.

Business Application

This research lends support for study-abroad programmes and expatriate assignments in organizations — with the proviso that seeing more of the world may be as or more important than spending a longer period of time in one particular country.

The results may also be interpreted as an argument for looking favourably on job candidates who have lived and worked in several foreign countries. Generalized trust is, as the researchers state at the beginning of their study, not only essential for the functioning of society but also critical in a globalized economy, where “interactions with unfamiliar others are inevitable”.

The more open employees are towards others and the higher their tolerance of ‘differences’, the more likely they are to be ‘assets’ to the modern organization. Put another way, if you want to succeed in the global economy, you need staff with a global consciousness.

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Idea conceived

  • December 2013

Idea posted

  • March 2014

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