How Living Abroad Creates a Clearer Sense of Self

Written by Lexi Cummings

A recent article published in the Harvard Business Review heralds the psychological benefits of studying abroad. In order to explore this claim, researchers examined the concept of “self-concept clarity,” referring to “the extent to which someone’s understanding of him or herself is ‘clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and temporally stable.’” While previous studies have claimed that transitional periods have led to a decrease in “self-concept clarity,” these researchers contrasted those studies with their consensus that their study abroad experiences had led to an increase in their “self-concept clarity.”

To test their hypothesis, researchers then ran multiple experiments. In the first experiment, researchers recruited 296 participants, half of whom had lived abroad for three months and half who had not. They found that people who had lived abroad had a clearer sense of self than those who did not. To address possible confounding variables, researchers set up an experiment controlling for age, gender, marital status, socioeconomic status, and personality traits. Even so, they once again found that people who had lived abroad reported a clearer sense of self than people who had not lived abroad yet.

How is this thinking relevant to our everyday lives? The article argues that a clearer sense of “self-concept clarity” has been linked to many benefits such as  psychological well-being, the ability to cope with stress, and job performance. In addition, the article also noted that people’s self-discerning reflections “are a critical ingredient in the relationship between living abroad and self-concept clarity.” As defined by the article, self-discerning reflections are “musings on whether parts of their identity truly define who they are or merely reflect their cultural upbringing.” While abroad the likelihood of engaging in self-discernment reflections goes up, because you are exposed to different cultural norms that encourage you to think critically about your own values and beliefs.

What are the implications of increased self-clarity for engagement with the “real” world? The article notes that one key implication could be the production of better alignment between how people see themselves and how others see them. This is valuable to companies, as previous feedback systems have noted that mismatched perception of self and how others see themselves are “associated with a range of negative job-related outcomes.” Additionally, increased self-clarity can contribute positively to career management in that “having a clear sense of self elucidates which types of career options best match one’s strengths and fulfill one’s values, thereby enabling people to be clearer and more confident about their career decisions.”

Overall, researchers were able to find consistent evidence across studies indicating study abroad’s positive effects on self-clarity, and self-clarity’s benefits. This article serves to highlight many of the key beneficial impacts study abroad can have, but also notes that more evidence is needed in order to conclusively declare that this trend is applicable to all.