Once Again Mark Twain Right About A Thing
It’s always encouraging to find a line from a favorite writer being borne out by Science. (SCIENCE!) For instance, a recent social science study was inspired in part by a Mark Twain quote, from The Innocents Abroad:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Sounds reasonable enough, and we’d all like to believe the story that before he was President, George W. Bush had never traveled outside the U.S. (unfortunately, it’s not true — which maybe just proves that Dubya was resistant even to the applied wisdom of Sam Clemens.) But does travel actually make you a more open-minded person? Some research from a team at Northwestern University suggests that it may, although of course, individual mileage (not to mention frequent-flyer points) may vary.
Lead researcher Jiyin Cao said that her group set out to test these assumptions:
Does travel make people more trusting? Does travel lead people to have a more charitable view of humanity? Given the trend toward globalization and the increasing popularity of foreign travel, this will be an important and interesting question to explore. In addition, we compared two aspects of foreign experiences: the number of countries one visits (breadth) and the length of time one spends abroad (depth), and explored which one plays a critical role in the process.”
Combining results from five different studies involving over 700 participants, the researchers found that breadth matters, but depth, not so much — the more countries a person travels to, the more trusting they tend to be. That increase in trust doesn’t seem to be affected by the length of time abroad, however. Cao believes that “breadth provides a great level of diversity in people’s foreign travel experiences, allowing them to reach such a generalized assumption.”
In the first study, “the researchers surveyed undergraduates about their foreign experiences and feelings of trust. Those who visited a higher number of countries tended to be more trusting.” But wait, says the skeptical reader, how do you know that it’s not the other way around? What if more trusting people are more likely to travel widely than less trusting people?
The second survey might seem to answer that:
The researchers surveyed Chinese participants both before traveling abroad and after traveling abroad. Consistent with their hypothesis, those who traveled to more places tended to become more trusting.
Another part of the study also seemed to suggest that it’s the travel that leads to open-mindedness, rather than the other way around:
Visiting places that are unfamiliar and different appears to be a key factor. In their final experiment, Cao and her [colleagues] found those who visited places less similar than their homeland became more trusting than those who visited places more similar to their homeland.
Which makes an intuitive kind of sense; you find yourself in a very different place, or several of them, and you might tend to find yourself relying more on other people to make sense of it.
Still, if the researchers were taking Innocents Abroad as a starting point for research, it might also be worth touching on that book, with its hilariously provincial Americans bumbling across Europe and the Middle East, for further research into why some people aren’t particularly broadened by foreign travel. What factors lead some travelers to confirm their stereotypes instead of challenging or dropping them? I’m thinking of a woman who recently told me, “You never really appreciate how great it is to be an American and to have your freedom until you’ve lived someplace else.”
The tyrannical foreign land where she’d seen oppressed people yearning to breathe free? England.