Travelers act more immorally when abroad — and it’s not just students.

By Seriously Science | January 2, 2017 6:00 am
Photo: flickr/Guillaume Speurt

Photo: flickr/Guillaume Speurt

If you’ve ever gone on an overnight field trip, you know that kids tend to go wild when they’re away from home. According to this study, that effect holds when people travel abroad — and it’s not just students. These researchers show that people of all ages tend to display more “immoral behavior” (think, drinking and promiscuity) when traveling abroad. They conclude that this effect is due to increased moral relativism (the belief that morality is not absolute): “As individuals are exposed to diverse cultures, their moral compass may lose some of its precision.” And that’s what I told my mom when I got sent home early from the band trip. (Not!)

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

“Because of the unprecedented pace of globalization, foreign experiences are increasingly common and valued. Past research has focused on the benefits of foreign experiences, including enhanced creativity and reduced intergroup bias. In contrast, the present work uncovers a potential dark side of foreign experiences: increased immoral behavior. We propose that broad foreign experiences (i.e., experiences in multiple foreign countries) foster not only cognitive flexibility but also moral flexibility. Using multiple methods (longitudinal, correlational, and experimental), 8 studies (N > 2,200) establish that broad foreign experiences can lead to immoral behavior by increasing moral relativism-the belief that morality is relative rather than absolute. The relationship between broad foreign experiences and immoral behavior was robust across a variety of cultural populations (anglophone, francophone), life stages (high school students, university students, MBA students, middle-aged adults), and 7 different measures of immorality. As individuals are exposed to diverse cultures, their moral compass may lose some of its precision.”

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  • OWilson

    Must have been a fun study group.

    Where did they survey? Rio, Ibitza, New Orleans, Amsterdam, Bangkok?

    These are party destinations (so I’m told).

    When you decide to leave the kraft dinner in the cupboard at home, and go out to Ming’s Chinese Buffet Emporium, chances are you will participate in some rather more exotic taste experiences?

  • Uncle Al

    A heterosexual kiss in 1940’s America was mildly unexceptional. It was prelude to a marriage proposal in England. All American soldiers were sex maniacs, all English women had round heels.

    It was a delightfully functional social paradigm. As Feynman said, “you must ask.”

  • Andrew Worth

    The passage quoted, in which the term “immoral behavior” is repeatedly used in absolute terms suggests that the authors are moral absolutists.

    Morality is certainly relative; there’s a near endless list of things that used to be moral that are now amoral and vice versa, in my opinion it’s not a question of our ancestors being amoral and us moral or the opposite, it’s a question of people living under morality codes that suit the culture and technology they live in.

    So I’ll argue the authors are wrong, people are not taking part in “immoral behavior” when abroad, rather, what was immoral at home is not immoral in the cultural situation they find themselves in overseas.

    • OWilson

      Grandma, on vacation, risking a couple dollars at the slots while Grandpa slides nexr door to the nudie bar is not terminal damnation, one would hope!

    • Bronwyn (デイ)

      Perhaps the authors meant that travellers are engaging in behaviours which are immoral with respect to the traveller’s background, but not in the visited country. Which may be suprising, or may not. They may instead mean that travellers are engaging in behaviours that are flat-out immoral in both/all relevant cultures. That latter interpretation would be spared your (important, valid) criticism.

      Maybe what they’re actually dancing around on their high horses is that humans’ social adaptability is quite flexible even late into adulthood (despite morality being beaten quite solidly into us from a very young age, and it being quite strongly tied to learned/conditioned emotional responses: see trolley dilemmas and participants’ emotional responses and response times) for example). And, maybe persons’ moral grounds over-extend (as in, overgeneralize: drop all borders or grow to allow more extreme and more commonly designated “immoral” acts) upon contact with new cultural (and moral) environments first, before (possibly, if at all) shrinking back down following more familiarity with the new culture. That possibility would be very interesting to me, and very useful, socially speaking.

  • Byron Spencer

    One of the best reasons for travelling, not just for the pleasure of seeing “exotic” places, is found in the value of learning from different cultures. Now the issue of what is moral, and what is not, is essentially the matter of what a person (or a foreign community) may deem acceptable or not. One would say that people made from a unique social, religious, and cultural fabric will have a different criteria for what is right and wrong, and understandably so.

    So somewhat on the contrary, I personally maintain that people who travel for the purpose of personal development, and not of mere leisure, will instead earn a deeper understanding and respect for societal complexities from place to place.

  • Jan Mikkelsen

    Alternate reading: when exposed to other cultures people see that much of what is claimed to be “morality” is actually “prudishness”.

  • Amanda Jones

    “Immorally” compared to the morals of where they come from, the places they travel to, what their parents expect from them or…??? The way it is put in the article gives the hint of unique, absolute morals.
    Also, I can imagine we all are more prone to behave “immorally” during a holiday in Ibiza than if we move to Siberia to work down a mine… which is not specified in the article either.
    And still, having more fun does not necessarily mean behaving immorally -unless the “morality” is measured by certain religious standards.

  • Kenneth Nielsen

    In the town I grew up in the high school had a trip to Washington DC every year. We all stayed in a motel for the weekend and besides the usual tourist stops there was a dance and party on a cruise boat. This was in the seventies. But the real purpose of the trip was to buy cartons of untaxed cigarettes and fireworks, Most of all was drinking in the rooms (and smoking weed for the ‘freaks’) and trying (and succeeding) to have sex. You didn’t have to travel to a foreign land or culture to think that the rules no longer applied. That trip was teenagers saying DC baby before they ever thought of Vegas. And they sure as hell weren’t getting a trip to Europe as a family vacation or graduation gift. It seems for a large number of people they are looking for any excuse or justification for breaking their own or others moral code. If they can ask themselves that “hey who’s gonna know” followed by “who’s that gonna hurt” without actually considering the answers the barriers and guilt disappear.


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