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3 Obstacles For Research About Cheating & Morality

What if traveling abroad were somehow bad for you? Well, a series of studies seem to find that “[traveling abroad] can lead to [lying and cheating] by increasing moral relativism” (Lu et al 2017, 1, 3). This finding has just the right combination of intuitive plausibility and surprise for us to want to share it uncritically. So, instead, let’s take a look at the methods, measures, and philosophical nuances of the topic. As usual, a bit of reflection makes the finding a bit less exciting and it reveals a need for follow-up research.

1.  A Problem With Cheating Studies

If the researchers claim that traveling abroad leads to bad behaviors like lying and cheating, then they measured both travel and lying/cheating, right? They certainly tried. But what if they measured only lying/cheating?

Why would I ask that? Well, presumably people who are willing to lie and cheat on a survey’s prescreening questions are also willing to lie and cheat during the survey. Call this the Prescreen Cheating Problem (Chandler and Paolacci 2017). Allow me to explain.

The Prescreen Cheating Problem

Once a study participant indicates that they haven’t met the criteria for a study (e.g., they haven’t traveled to the right places to qualify for the survey), they cannot complete the corresponding survey or collect their payment for participating. But, of course, participants can lie and cheat on the prescreening questions in order to get their payment — or, in one of Lu et al’s 2017 studies, a chance to win an iPad. So, if the inclusion criteria for a survey are “blatant” and if the reward is enticing enough, then the participants can simply lie their way to their reward (ibid.).

The Problem for the Travel Abroad Study

This means that the ‘I traveled to [wherever]’ participant pool consists not only of people who actually traveled. It also includes people who didn’t travel but lied about that. This lying problem isn’t always a problem for surveys. But it is a problem for surveys that are supposed to test whether lying is linked to some supposedly independent variable (e.g., traveling abroad). So if even some of the participants lied about traveling, then the researchers may have discovered only that lying and cheating is linked to …well, lying and cheating. Hardly an informative finding.

So we should hope that Lu et al employed the strategies that Chandler and Paolacci have shown to minimize the Prescreen Cheating Problem (ibid.). Alas, I did not notice any mention of these strategies in the paper.

2. A Problem with Measuring Moral Relativism

If the researchers claim that the effect of traveling abroad on behavior is moderated by changes in moral relativism, then they probably measured moral relativism, right? Surely they tried.

To measure moral relativism, Lu et al adapted six of the following items (Forsyth 1980):

1. A person should make certain that their actions never intentionally harm another even to a small degree.
2. Risks to another should never be tolerated, irrespective of how small the risks might be.
3. The existence of potential harm to others is always wrong, irrespective of the benefits to be gained.
4. One should never psychologically or physically harm another person.
5. One should not perform an action which might in any way threaten the dignity and welfare of another individual.
6. If an action could harm an innocent other, then it should not be done.
7. Deciding whether or not to perform an act by balancing the positive consequences of the act against the negative consequences of the act is immoral.
8. The dignity and welfare of people should be the most important concern in any society.
9. It is never necessary to sacrifice the welfare of others.
10. Moral actions are those which closely match ideals of the most "perfect" action.
11. There are no ethical principles that are so important that they should be a part of any code of ethics.
12. What is ethical varies from one situation and society to another.
13. Moral standards should be seen as being individualistic; what one person considers to be moral may be judged to be immorally another person.
14. Different types of moralities cannot be compared as to "rightness."
15. Questions of what is ethical for everyone can never be resolved since what is moral or immoral is up to the individual.
16. Moral standards are simply personal rules which indicate how a person should behave, and are not to be applied in making judgments of others.
17. Ethical considerations in interpersonal relations are so complex that individuals should be allowed to formulate their own individual codes.
18. Rigidly codifying an ethical position that prevents certain types of actions could stand in the way of better human relations and adjustment.
19. No rule concerning lying can be formulated; whether a lie is permissible or not permissible totally depends upon the situation.
20. Whether a lie is judged to be moral or immoral depend upon the circumstances surrounding the action.

Alas, Lu et al did not specify which six of these questions were adapted nor which one was adapted to the one mentioned in the paper: “Moral rules are relative rather than absolute” — since that is not one of Forsyth’s original items.

And with only one of these moral relativism items, we might wonder whether the researchers’ items were tracking attitudes about moral relativism or as some orthogonal construct(s). After all, the researchers example about rules and many of Forsyth’s original 20 items are more about consequentialism (2, 3, 7, 9, 11, 12, 20) (DeLapp), moral particularism (3, 4, 17, 19) (Dancy 2013, McNaughton & Rawling 2000), and moral realism (14, 15) than about moral relativism per se (Joyce 2015).

3. A Problem About the Construal of ‘Moral Relativism’

Moral relativism is bad, right? Well, that’s what we tell students in the first week of our introductory ethics courses. But like much of what we learn in introductory courses, this is not a nuanced analysis. In fact, there are both benign and more malignant forms of moral relativism. It depends on what we mean by ‘relative’, what we think is relative, and that to which we think it is supposed to be relative.

What do you mean by ‘relative’?

Lu et al cash out ‘moral relativism’ in terms of “absolute” vs. “relative” and “objective” vs. “subjective”. Alas, these distinctions are very different (Joyce 2015).  So it is disappointing that these distinctions seem to be conflated in the paper (and the literature that the paper reviews).

What is relative?

Also, they aren’t clear about what it is that is supposed to be relative (or subjective). Is it just our moral rules or attitudes? That’d be uncontroversial! Our moral attitudes and our moral rules are probably relative to all sorts of variables. Or did Lu et al ask whether moral truth is relative (or subjective)? That’s a very different claim.

To what is it relative?

Further, they are not clear about what it is to which morality is supposed to be relative. Is it relative to individuals? To cultures? To what part of individuals/cultures is it relative to precisely? As far as I can tell, Lu et al do not specify that to which they (or their 6 questions) take moral [stuff] to be relative.

The Point

Even if we grant that Lu et al successfully measured moral relativism (and not some orthogonal construct(s)), it is unclear what kind of moral relativism they measured. For example, was it the benign or malignant kind? Was it proper relativism or just subjectivism? And was it proper moral relativism or just relativism about moral attitudes, rules, and the like.


  • First, It is not clear that this otherwise cool and exciting paper adequately addresses the Prescreen Cheating Problem. So we might not be able to differentiate participants’ reports about travel experiences from lies about travel experiences. And so the paper’s finding could be construed as a mere tautology: lying and cheating are associated with lying and cheating.
  • Second, it is not clear that Lu et al’s questions measure moral relativism instead of related, but orthogonal constructs. So it is not clear that lying and cheating are linked to moral relativism per se.
  • Finally, it is not clear what Lu et al mean by ‘moral relativism’. So it is unclear if the findings — should we accept them — involve a controversy, a truism, or something else.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog