Participants who’d visited more countries cheated more

Airport departure board
International travel may put your moral compass in a spin

By Alex Fradera

Since she got back from her year abroad, there’s been something different about Sam. Once an avid rule-follower, now she’s breaking them – and when you raise it she explains that these things, after all, are just a matter of perspective.

Can exposure to other countries breed a flexible relationship to the rules, even moral relativism? According to new research in the Journal of Personality and Social Cognition, it can.

Columbia University’s Jackson Lu led an international team to explore this question through a range of studies. They knew living abroad has been associated with positive outcomes such as reduced judgment of other groups and, in particular, cognitive flexibility, which supports creativity. But Lu’s team theorised a possible downside: that this flexibility could extend to the domain of morality. Perhaps experiencing many moral codes can prompt us to question our own.

The researchers asked over 600 participants about their travel habits before providing them with a task where there was a golden opportunity to cheat. Participants took a trivia quiz where a “computer glitch” meant that they had to press the spacebar straight after seeing each question to avoid the answer also flashing on-screen. The researchers were secretly recording the bar presses, and the resultant index of cheating was higher for participants who had reported visiting more countries in their lives. The effect remained after controlling for some of the obvious confounding variables like age, gender, education, socioeconomic status, and personality.

Is the effect due to visiting many countries, or just more time away from home? In the next study, 551 MBA students reported both the total time they’d spent abroad, and the number of countries visited, before taking the trivia quiz. It was the number of countries they’d visited – effectively, the number of different moral codes experienced – that correlated with more cheating; amount of time abroad didn’t seem to be relevant. The researchers also took account of the levels of corruption in each of the countries the participants had visited (as measured by Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index): this showed it was past exposure to a greater variety of other cultures, not exposure to particularly corrupt cultures, that was associated with greater cheating on the quiz.

A further study showed that as well as cheating more, participants who wrote about a multi-country trip subsequently expressed more permissive opinions towards acts of moral rule-breaking like fare-dodging, whether committed by themselves or by others. The implication is that extensive travel doesn’t make you feel that you are above the law, but makes you question whether these laws apply to anyone at all.

All this suggests that the well-travelled participants had picked up a trace of moral relativism from their travels, through exposure to a variety of moral frameworks. International travel seems to enable people to break moral rules as much as mental ones. The effect sizes were fairly small within these studies, meaning that the real-life consequences for well-travelled individuals are unlikely to be drastic. But as international travel becomes ever more commonplace, including for students still forming their views about how the world works, the effects uncovered here could have an influence on our world.

The dark side of going abroad: How broad foreign experiences increase immoral behavior

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

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