When you think about future plans, do they include travel? The allure of new places is quite real for many of us. A visit to Thailand, Peru, or Paris would expose you to a range of new experiences, but could it also increase your likelihood of cheating?
Theresa E DiDonato Ph.D. is a social psychologist and associate professor at Loyola University Maryland. Her research interests focus on different aspects of romantic relationships, from factors that contribute to romantic attraction (e.g., humor) and relationship satisfaction (e.g., forgiveness) to how the self-concept changes in relationship participation or dissolution.
Editor: Talha Khalid
The pros of international travel are evident. Spending time in a different cultural context can challenge your assumptions, introduce you to new ideas and beliefs, pull you out of your comfort zone, and engage you in ways you can't anticipate. You might see visually-stunning landscapes, modern wonders, or ancient ruins, taste new delicacies, communicate with people who speak a different language, and immerse yourself in a novel context.
This all sounds good, right?
Indeed, scholars have documented that people who experience international travel tend to be more creative (Tadmor, Galinsky, & Maddux, 2012), and are often less biased against outgroups (Tadmor et al., 2012). Most notably, travel nurtures cognitive flexibility, the ability to think in new ways that is spurred by the unusual, diverse, and foreign situations people find themselves in when they travel. In other words, our thinking can become less rigid and more adaptive when we travel abroad.
These personal and social outcomes represent some of the many benefits from travel, but a new study on the "dark side of going abroad," published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, challenges a uniformly positive perspective on international travel. The research tests the idea that, in inducing cognitive flexibility (a positive outcome of travel), travel also might promote moral flexibility, i.e., moral relativity.
In other words, can traveling abroad promote immoral behavior?
In a series of eight varied studies, Lu and colleagues (2017) tested the link between international travel and engaging in immoral behavior. They varied their methods, using longitudinal, correlational, and experimental approaches, and considered the question from different cultural perspectives and among different samples. Overall, their results suggest that traveling abroad does increase the likelihood of engaging in immoral behavior. Particularly convincing to that point is their experimental research, which unlike correlational findings, allows for the tentative inference of cause and effect. Maybe there really is something here.
But how broadly can their findings be applied? Would traveling abroad promote romanticinfidelity? A departure from standards of moral behavior typical in monogamous couples (i.e., be faithful) would indeed be a clear example of a moral transgression.
The authors offer the admission that their work did not examine rates of romantic infidelity, focusing instead on a set of well-established measures of immorality in social interaction contexts (e.g., cheating on a game, lying to earn more money, scoring higher on measures of immoral intentions).
There is an important distinction between cheating in a game that has no serious social consequences and having an affair. The former is no match for the latter in terms of transgression severity. An inclination to give oneself the advantage in a game and earn an extra 50 cents when no one will know does not hurt someone the way romantic cheating likely would. Yes, this is important groundwork for future research that might tackle the high-stakes question of romantic cheating, as the authors suggest, but we should be wary of jumping to any conclusions.
International travel introduces you to new people, has the magical allure of the unknown and unusual, and can free you from the usual constraints of your everyday world. Such dynamics might lend themselves towards moral leniency and an openness towards an affair.
However, couples often travel together, and research suggests that when couples experience something new together, it brings them closer to each other (Aron, Norman, Aron, McKenna, & Heyman, 2000). Sharing an exciting experience, such as those that often come from traveling abroad, increases relationship satisfaction and could lay the groundwork for a long-term relationship buffered from relationship boredom.
In the end, more research is needed to examine how traveling abroad might specifically affect the potential for romantic infidelity, but the work by Lu and colleagues (2017) is clear on its conclusion: Exposure to a diverse experiences, such as those that occur during international travel, cultivates openness toward (at least some) immoral behaviors.