My son was a baby when our family moved to Switzerland. If you have any stereotypes of the Swiss in your head, it's probably that they are clean and orderly. This stereotype overwhelmingly plays out. For example, the street cleaner truck goes down my suburban street every week. If someone spray paints graffiti at the tram stop (my favorite was a group that used to go around spray painting their zip code with a stencil), it will be cleaned and gone in less than 24 hours. And crossing the street? You never, ever, go against the light. I have seen people stand at perfectly clear streets, while they wait for the light to change, even if it means missing their bus.

When my son was three, we took a trip to Italy. While Italy has better food than the Swiss, they don't believe in cleanliness the way the Swiss do, nor are traffic lights any more than suggestions for pedestrians. While walking down the street in Milan, he turned to me and said, rather indignantly "Somebody needs to clean this place up!" Then he absolutely, positively refused to cross the light when there was a "red man" instead of a "green man" on the sign. While everyone else crossed, he and I stood and waited for the light to change. People looked at us like we were weirdos.

What we didn't realize was that we were pointing out how morality varies from country to country and from culture to culture. You are considered strange for crossing against the light in one country and strange for not crossing against the light in another.

A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Cognition looked at the downside of international travel. Study authors (Jackson G. Lu, Jordi Quoidbach, Alex Chakroff, William W. Maddux, and Adam D. Galinsky), asked 600 volunteers about their travel habits and history, but with a catch. They made it very easy for participants to cheat on the study. The worst cheaters? Those with a bunch of international travel under their belts.

To tease out the effects of travel versus time away from home, they repeated the study with 551 MBA students, but this time had the volunteers list not only the number of countries but the time spent in each country. Additionally, they looked at the corruption levels in each country. What they found that it wasn't the evil, corrupt countries that were damaging the morals of the participants--it was the number of countries.

The British Psychological Society summed up the research from these two tests and a third study about rule breaking as follows:

[P]articipants 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.

Before you panic about sending your employees out on international travel, for fear that they'll come back corrupt, note that while significant, the actual effect was pretty small. Nevertheless, your own moral compass might be something you want to pay attention to as you trot around the globe. While cultural norms differ, fare dodging is always wrong.

Published on: Feb 2, 2017