The Psychology of Travel: A Theoretical Analysis of
How Study Abroad and Positive Regression Affect Personal Growth and Career Choice

Author: Greta Elena Couper, Ph.D.

Scope of Study:

This theoretical analysis and retrospective study explores the psychology of travel, and how and why study abroad affects personal growth and career choice. International travelers often experience something far beyond the acquisition of new subject matter or cultural awareness—they undergo a personal paradigm shift that alters their perception of themselves and their world in such a way as to clarify areas of their lives that were previously unclear. Many conceptual frameworks in developmental psychology are outlined to help define how people acquire new behavioral skills. This sometimes occurs through re-experiencing regressive situations from earlier childhood stages of development and adaptation in the more secure adult years. Transformative learning refers to a dialectic, experiential form of learning through which one reexamines and changes perceptions, values, and behavior.

The participants in this study were 126 college alumni five or more years after graduation, both who had and had not attended a study abroad program. A survey was distributed that consisted of demographic information, the Keirsey Temperament Sorter (KTS-II), a portion of the Omnibus Personality Inventory, and six open-ended questions related to regression, career consolidation, world-mindedness, and life goals. The emphasis was on self-awareness, not on the design, development, or administration of a study abroad program.

Findings and Conclusions:

Quantitative and qualitative data comparing the differences between study abroad alumni and non-study abroad alumni were analyzed using the statistical procedures of two-way analysis of variance (2x2 ANOVA) and chi-square (c 2). Findings showed that (1) one’s temperament did not determine whether the study abroad experience was effective; (2) vocational goals were toward service careers and away from monetary pursuits; (3) childhood feelings (not actions) in times of frustration were more evident but less emotional; (4) new challenges and environments were more readily accepted; (5) time allocation was more flexible and less scheduled; and (6) corporate culture was easier to adjust to for those with experience abroad. Of particular interest were the differences in personality traits between female and male participants. This is important because other cultures provide varied experiences based on their unique definitions of appropriate gender behavior and opportunity. Thus, research on the influence of travel on personal growth should include analysis by gender.

With the dawning of the twenty-first century, positive psychology is emerging as a field in its own right. This specialty encompasses the science of positive influences and strives to improve the quality of life for all people. Further research should be pursued on how and why international travel affects personal growth, whether regressive experiences during travel help trigger learning, and how much pre-travel training and emotional support during travel is required for optimal learning conditions. This will assist with the design of, and decisions to attend such programs. Travel and multicultural encounters provide opportunities for personal growth. These experiences can transform individuals, organizations, and society.


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