The Secret of Immigrant Genius

Victor Hugo, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein were all immigrants or refugees.  They either chose, or were forced, to cross cultures. Eric Weiner notes this phenomenon in a Wall Street Journal article, “The Secret of Immigrant Genius.”  So many immigrants excel that it has attracted the attention of social psychologists to ask “Why?”

Today, foreign born residents account for only 13% of the US population but hold nearly a third of all patents and a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans.

“Schema violations” happen when ones world is turned upside down such as is the case when one is forced from their home or leaves their home culture.  Radical new systems of coping have to be developed. Old systems of coping are are confronted as situationally specific and only one of many possibilities.

Uprooted from the familiar, they see the world at an angle, and this fresh perspective enables them to surpass the merely talented.

Weiter quotes Dean Simonton of the University of California

Once you recognize that there is another way of doing X or thinking of Y, all sorts of new channels open up to you.  The awareness of cultural variety helps set the mind free.

Perhaps this helps explain why “Third Culture Kids” often excel academically but struggle to accepted back into the social norms of their home culture.  It also might give us some insights as to why missionaries and Peace Corp volunteers are frequently accused of “going off the deep end” after a few years of immersing themselves in another culture.  Their cross cultural experiences have forever changed their perspectives.  They simply process things differently, using a wider variety of experiences to reach their conclusions.

Everyone should seek an opportunity to live cross-culturally.  Short term trips are good and may raise awareness, but longer stints are needed to go through the stages of cross cultural adaptation. I suspect we would all learn to “think outside the box” if we would intentionally escape the echo chamber of our home culture at least for a season.

The research also suggests that those that encounter the immigrant can also benefit. I have personally benefited from befriending refugees and graduate students from all over the world.  I learn their perspectives and think more holistically by embracing the alien.

So the bottom line is that refugees and immigrants make us all better.  They are smart and make us better people. Intentional cross cultural engagement will help us find the creative solutions to the complexities that challenge our world.