Everybody who has been abroad for a longer time will notice something’s different after returning. People, places, perceptions – once familiar, but everything feels strange now. It is not that the actual things have changed, it is you and your perception that are different than before. Even friends and family might notice a difference, a change in your personality. And this change can be measured.
Psychologists have measured how personality changes in students going abroad for at least a semester up to a year and longer (Zimmermann, J. & Neyer, F. J. (2013). Do we become a different person when hitting the road? Personality development of sojourners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, 515-530). While students spending a term abroad might not be exactly the same thing as long-term backpackers, they are a good approximation as both groups are going to spend quite an amount of time in foreign countries away from home trying to find out how to get along and what to do in daily life.
The Big Five
Travelers might think of the animals you can see on a safari when hearing Big Five, but actually the Five Factor Model is practically the gold standard of personality psychology. It consists of five personality traits which can be measured in comparison to control groups like the general population. These are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Traits are generally stable, but undergo slight changes during a lifetime, especially when transcending from adolescence into adulthood. Taking these considerations into account, Zimmermann and Neyer’s study does not only measure the Big Five traits in the so-called sojourners before and after their abroad experience, but compares it with a control group of students who stayed in their home country.
So what exactly do these traits say about us and how are they influenced by long-term travel?
Individuals with a high degree of openness are curious, creative, and open-minded. They like to try and experience new things and ideas. The study shows a statistically significant increase in openness in sojourners. A journey abroad enhances your perspective and makes you more open-minded. This does not come as a surprise. Being confronted with a new culture and meeting lots of new people gives you a more complex understanding of the world and society. Additionally openness is a good predictor of the willingness to go abroad, at least in long-term sojourners. This also makes sense. The more open you are, the more likely you consider to spend a longer time abroad and get to know another culture. In short-team sojourners there was no significant effect however.
On a personal level, I can totally confirm these results. If I had not been curious about the world, I probably would not have considered spending a year in India while I pursued my degree in university. And it kept challenging my beliefs and convictions. Every journey is an opportunity to see and learn something new. I love it.
Conscientiousness is the degree of your self-discipline. Persons scoring high in this dimension are very reliable and exhibit a planned and organized behavior. They are goal-oriented but not very flexible or spontaneous. There is no difference between the levels of conscientiousness of sojourners and non-sojourners.
On the one hand a lot of traveling is a good practice for your planning and organizing skills, especially when you have to do it in an unfamiliar environment. On the other hand however I notice I always become a little more spontaneous and less rigid when on the road. This goes along with a thirst for adventure and desire for relaxation. This effect is not really stable as I fall back into my old behavioral patterns once I am back home.
An interesting result of the study is that conscientiousness is a good predictor for the willingness to go abroad for short-term sojourns. While long-term sojourners may want to explore new cultures out of curiosity, short-team sojourners could be more career-oriented and go abroad for utilitarian reasons to have a more interesting CV.
Extraverted individuals are usually energized by engaging with other people. They are stimulated by social interaction and are often cheerful and talkative. On the downside, extraverts can be perceived as shallow, attention-seeking, and dominant. Their counterparts are introverts who are quieter and more reserved. The study shows no effect of sojourning on the level of extraversion. Traveling does not transform you into a party animal. However just like openness and conscientiousness, extraversion is a good predictor for sojourning. In contrary to the other dimensions this is true for both short- and long-term sojourners. Clearly wanting to meet strangers in a foreign environment is a lot more plausible when you’re an extrovert.
I consider myself an introvert, but this did not keep me from traveling abroad. I have to admit this would sometimes be more challenging for me than it could have been for a more extrovert version of myself. Traveling is a good practice for introverts – sometimes we have to talk and get of our shell, or we are lost. I feel that traveling actually makes me a little more extrovert while on the road but this is not permanent and I withdraw back into my recluse once arriving back home.
Persons with a high level of agreeableness are perceived as friendly, compassionate, helpful, and cooperative. They also display modesty and sympathy for others. Agreeable persons are less assertive or dominant. We can observe a significant increase in agreeableness in sojourners. Not only good for you, but for others as well: traveling makes you a more pleasant person to be with. This is no surprise as you often depend on others and have to get along with them when you are on your own in a foreign place.
I hope and believe I have become a friendlier and more agreeable person through traveling. You come to see things from a different perspective and enhance your own understanding of people and how the world functions. Get out and see things don’t have to be done the way you used to know but are approachable from different angles and still work. And a lot of cultures cultivate a broader sense of community and mutual support than some Western societies.
Neuroticism refers to the degree of emotional stability. Individuals with higher neuroticism react stronger to stress and external events. They tend to have more problems with anger, anxiety, and depression. Sojourning clearly reduces neuroticism and this effect is highly significant. I may have used the red arrow to show a decrease, but in the case of neuroticism this is a good thing. Less neurotic means more emotionally stable. An improved emotional stability is probably one of the most valuable effects for the traveler.
I have to say being abroad was not always easy and sometimes events on the road really challenged my emotional stability, for instance when someone tried to rob me in Tahiti or when my teeth made severe troubles in Fiji. On the other hand every experience is a part of the learning process and afterwards you are stronger than before. It is probably the combination of challenge and mastering the challenge what helps building emotional stability in the long run.
We see traveling is not only an adventure and great fun, but shapes your personality in a positive way. People who stay abroad for a longer time become more open, more agreeable, and less neurotic. It is not hard to see why a gap year helps you strengthen your personality and emotional stability when you feel stuck in your routines.
What changes in your personality owing to traveling have you experienced? Leave a comment if you like.