Thinking in a foreign language, as Science of Us has previously reported, can alter your sense of morality — possibly because you’re more rational, and less emotional and intuitive — when you’re speaking something other than your native tongue. But according to a study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and highlighted by Discover, it’s not just the language that makes a difference: simply being in a foreign country can change the way you think about right and wrong. Over eight experiments, the researchers found a consistent link between time spent in a foreign country and a loosening of moral standards.
In one, for example, the study authors followed a group of French high-school students who were embarking on study-abroad programs, checking in with them three months before they left for their destination, six months into their trip, and again a full year after they arrived. At each point, the students were told they’d have a chance to win an iPad if they could successfully solve a series of word puzzles; to move from one puzzle to the next, all they had to do was check a box marked “solved,” without actually typing in an answer. What the participants didn’t know, though, was that one of the puzzles was designed to be unsolvable — meaning that anyone who claimed to progress past it was marked down as cheating. Around 30 percent of the students cheated in the first phase, before the study-abroad program began — but once they’d actually been in a new country for a while, the researchers found, that number rose significantly, to roughly 46 percent after six months away and 48 percent after a year.
But it wasn’t just students who seemed to experience this effect. In another experiment, the researchers surveyed a group of adult volunteers about their travel experience, then had them play another game secretly designed to offer opportunities for cheating. This time, the authors didn’t promise the participants any sort of material reward for playing, meaning there was no real incentive to cheat. Still, many did so anyway — and the more countries a player had visited, the more likely they were to flout the rules.
The reason, the study authors argued, is that time abroad can increase a person’s sense of moral relativism, weakening their belief in an objective sense of right and wrong: “As individuals are exposed to diverse cultures, their moral compass may lose some of its precision,” they wrote — an idea bolstered by the fact that across the many experiments, a wide breadth of foreign experiences was more closely linked to immorality than spending a significant amount of time in any one place. The pace of time seems unfamiliar once you leave your home turf; so too, it seems, does the moral code you know best.