International students 'oversimplify ethical dilemmas'

Training needs to recognise US and overseas students’ different approaches to decision-making, study concludes

August 23, 2015
Woman looking at The Thinker sculpture, Auguste Rodin, Beijing World Art Museum
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Ponder: ethical dilemmas are inherently complex and good decisions are tough

International graduate students are more likely than their US peers to oversimplify ethical dilemmas, a study of postgraduates at “a large, public university in the southwestern United States” has found.

The study, “A comparison of the effects of ethics training on international and US students”, published in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics, notes that “differences between how international and US students approach ethical decision-making, biases, and compensatory strategies may be a reason why some US academics have concerns about the ethical research conduct of international students”.

It finds that the international students, most of whom were Asian, had a lower level of ethical decision-making skills, possibly due to a tendency to oversimplify dilemmas.

However, the paper’s first author, Logan Steele, a PhD student in industrial and organisational psychology at the University of Oklahoma, told Times Higher Education that oversimplification was an inevitable consequence of international students’ typical unfamiliarity with “American academic ethics and interpersonal norms”.

This is because they rely more heavily on “rules, guidelines, and principles” that provide a resolution that is “less ambiguous in an equivocal environment”.

However, “ethical dilemmas are inherently complex…Even with the best information, the odds of making a good decision…are slim, but when people oversimplify or do not gather sufficient information, the odds…become even less favourable”, Mr Steele said.

For their part, Americans students are more likely to focus on the scientific outcomes of ethical decisions and to overlook unethical behaviour if the ultimate outcome is positive.

The study also found that, when they arrive at graduate school, US students feel more prepared to deal with ethical problems, and rate slightly more highly the importance of behaving “in an ethical manner”. However, a two-day training course in “responsible conduct of research” improved the scores of both groups of students by a similar amount relative to their initial scores.

“We assume people from different cultures have different ethics,” Mr Steele said. “The present study indicates that they benefit from educational interventions in the same way, but what differs is the style by which they approach ethical issues. The study suggests we must respect these alternative styles.”

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