Think about all the times in your life that you have traveled outside of your home country. Some of those times were certainly positive and rewarding. Maybe you had a life-changing study abroad experience in Europe, or an unforgettable honeymoon in Tanzania. But some of those times probably had a few negative or stressful moments as well. Perhaps you got food poisoning from a food truck in one country, or were singled out and berated for being a "foreigner" in another. Maybe you even had positive and negative experiences in the same trip.

Research has shown that all kinds of multicultural experiences—like working, living, or traveling abroad—can positively transform people. For example, multicultural experiences are linked to outcomes such as increased creativity, greater trust in others, improved leadership, and decreased bias. The general argument is that having new experiences abroad can open people's minds and beneficially change the way they view others and the world. That is, exposure to other cultures—be that people, food, music, etc.—is usually positive, and psychologically beneficial.

Yet, a lot of the research and anecdotes on time spent abroad focus only on the positive aspects of multicultural experiences (think Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling account of her soul-searching journey abroad in Eat, Pray, Love). But like anything people do in life, sometimes the experiences people have abroad are negative. So, although it is certainly the case that a lot (maybe even the vast majority!) of experiences abroad are positive, our research team wanted to understand what happens when people have negative experiences abroad. What we found is that Eat, Pray, Love can sometimes actually look more like Eat, Pray, Hate.

We conducted five experiments to figure out if and how negative experiences abroad can impact the attitudes people hold toward others and the world. In most of these studies, we had participants—who we ensured had all been to the same country—spend a few minutes recalling and writing about significant memories from their time abroad that were either positive or negative. In one study, we used a virtual reality simulation—built with real, 180-degree footage filmed from a trip to Brazil—to virtually "send" every participant abroad, where they had either a positive or a negative experience.

Across these experiments, we consistently found the same result: participants who recalled—or virtually experienced—negative multicultural experiences demonstrated greater intergroup bias. We measured two different kinds of intergroup bias: prejudice against people (i.e., greater disliking of others) and endorsement of negative stereotypes (i.e., thinking negative traits applied to all members of other groups). For example, participants who recalled negative moments from their time in Mexico reported greater dislike of Mexican people, and believed that Mexican people were all "poor."

Alarmingly, this intergroup bias effect generalized to other groups as well. When someone had a negative experience in a country—say Mexico—they held negative attitudes and beliefs toward Mexican people and people from other groups. These findings extended only to people from groups that are often stigmatized in society: African-American people and gay men. In other words, negative multicultural experiences led people to be generally biased against people from multiple stigmatized or devalued groups.

What could explain this finding? What is it about negative multicultural experiences that lead people to hold harmful biases toward others? Across these studies, neither negative emotions nor negative attitudes in general explained our results. Instead, we found that negative multicultural experiences increase bias because they lead people to endorse social dominance orientation, a problematic worldview of people who are different from themselves. When individuals endorse social dominance orientation, they believe that "outgroup" members (people who are different from themselves) are inferior, and that inequalities between groups in society are warranted.  So, multicultural experiences change how people view the world (and the people in it), and a significantly negative experience can lead to potentially bigoted worldviews and attitudes.

As globalization continues and technology improves, people are increasingly likely to have multicultural experiences. Travel is easier than ever before, and more and more people can now affordably visit other countries. Recent trends also suggest that there are more migrants than ever before. Relatedly, the explosion of remote work, "digital nomads," social media, and videoconferencing apps means that people can easily connect and interact with people around the globe. Our research supports the idea that these experiences can be transformative. But, while positive experiences abroad can be beneficial and foster open-mindedness, negative multicultural experiences can actually be psychologically damaging and lead to narrow-mindedness.

For Further Reading

Affinito, S. J., Antoine, G. E., Gray, K., & Maddux, W. W. (2023). Negative multicultural experiences can increase intergroup bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Maddux, W. W., Lu, J. G., Affinito, S. J., & Galinsky, A. D. (2021). Multicultural experiences: A systematic review and new theoretical framework. Academy of Management Annals15(2), 345-376.

Salvatore Affinito is a Senior Researcher at Harvard Business School. His research explores the future of work, particularly the impact of emerging societal and organizational trends on how individuals think, feel, and behave.

Giselle Antoine is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research explores the effects of culture and collective emotion on deviance in organizations.

Kurt Gray is a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he directs the Deepest Beliefs Lab and the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding. He studies morality, religion, perceptions of artificial intelligence, and how to best bridge political divides. 

William Maddux is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on culture, creativity, diversity, negotiations, and leadership.