In previous blog entries, I have talked about research suggesting that there is a positive impact of foreign travel. People who spend time in other countries and learn to adapt to another culture are more creative (on average) than people who have not learned to adapt to another culture.

Research from this same group, though, suggests a potential downside to foreign travel. A paper by Jackson Lu, Jordi Quoidbach, Francesca Gino, Alek Chakaroff, William Maddux, and Adam Galinsky in the January 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored whether foreign experiences change moral behavior and if so, why.

     Art Markman Ph.D.
    Art Markman Ph.D. is Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He got his Sc.B. in Cognitive Science from Brown and his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Illinois. He has published over 150 scholarly works on topics in higher-level thinking including the effects of motivation on learning and performance, analogical reasoning, categorization, decision making, and creativity. Art serves as the director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas.

Editor:  Saad Shaheed

These studies suggest that the breadth of foreign travel matters more than the depth. That is, people who visit more countries are more likely to engage in moral acts than people who visit fewer countries. The amount of time you spend traveling, though, does not have a strong impact.

In one study, participants in an online study were asked questions about the number of countries they had visited as well as the length of their stay. Later in the study, participants were given the chance to answer trivia questions. They were told that—due to a glitch in the computer system—the correct answer to the question would appear soon after the question unless they pressed the space bar immediately. The key measure in this study was how often participants failed to press the space bar and thus cheated on the quiz. 

The analysis related the number of countries people visited as well as the length of time to the amount of cheating—and the amount of cheating increased with the number of countries people visited, but not with the amount of time they spent in those countries.

A second study used an experimental design. It asked participants to write about an experience they had. Some participants were asked to write about a foreign experience, while others were asked to write about an experience in their home country. Later, participants played a game in which they rolled a die, in which the number on the die determined their payment. On average, participants reported a higher die roll when they had written about a foreign experience than when they had written about a home experience, or in a control condition in which they didn’t write about anything at all.

Why does this happen?

The authors suggest that when people travel to more than one country, they become more likely to endorse a philosophical position called moral relativism. The idea behind moral relativism is that the things people consider to be ethical actions are determined by the culture they live in rather than some global standard. So one culture may think it is perfectly acceptable to eat dogs, while another might find it morally repugnant. Moral relativism allows you to accept that some actions are fine in one culture but not another.

The idea is that once you accept moral relativism, the less strongly bound you may be to the ethical standards of your own culture. You may be more likely to decide that those standards are arbitrary, and so violating those standards becomes not such a bad thing to do.

In several other studies in this paper, the authors gave people a survey that measured how much they accepted moral relativism. They found that the more countries people had visited, the more likely they were to accept moral relativism. The amount of time people had spent in other countries—the depth of foreign travel—did not predict the belief in moral relativism.

Finally, a few studies in this series suggested that people with stronger beliefs in moral relativism were also more likely to cheat on laboratory tasks. So, the studies establish a chain in which visiting many countries strengthens people’s beliefs in moral relativism, which then leads people to be more likely to violate the moral standards of their community.

Of course, it is hard to decide whether this factor should really be considered a downside to foreign travel. Certainly, a tendency to want to cheat others is not something most of us want to promote in others. But the ethical standards of societies often do change over time. In the 1950’s, many people in the United States considered it to be immoral for people from different races to marry. Now, it is not seen as unethical. It takes people who are willing to question moral values to create changes in ethical standards.