Language and Morality: How Foreign Speech Influences Choice

First Posted: Apr 28, 2014 01:29 PM EDT

A recent study shows that using a foreign language can help many take a more utilitarian approach to moral dilemmas.

According to research conducted by psychologists at the University of Chicago and Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, they discovered that many who regularly use a foreign language also take a relatively utilitarian approach to moral dilemmas. Even more interesting, researchers discovered that this same response held true when an emotionally difficult outcome was involved--one that could even involve the sacrifice of another life or the person making the decision.

"This discovery has important consequences for our globalized world, as many individuals make moral judgments in both native and foreign languages," said Boaz Keysar, Professor of Psychology at UChicago, via a press release. "The real world implications could include an immigrant serving as a jury member in a trial, who may approach decision-making differently than a native-English speaker." Leading author Albert Costa, UPF psychologist adds that "deliberations at places like the United Nations, the European Union, large international corporations or investment firms can be better explained or made more predictable by this discovery."

For the study, researchers conducted two well-known "trolley dilemmas" to test the hypothesis regarding certain moral choices in a foreign language. Findings showed that most who used a foreign language were more likely to respond with a utilitarian approach.

Here is the scenario provided by the traditional trolley dilemma, courtesy of the release: "imagine they are standing on a footbridge overlooking a train track when they see that an on-coming train is about to kill five people. The only way to stop it is to push a heavy man off the footbridge in front of the train. That action will kill the man, but save the five people."

Study participants were asked to decide between sacrificing one person or allowing all five people to die. Across data collected from individuals in the United States, Korea, Spain, Israel and France, more selected the utilitarian choice of saving five by killing one. This choice was also picked more frequently when the problem was not presented in the participants' native language.

The second experiment involved a less emotional dilemma, courtesy of the release: "the trolley is headed towards the five men, but you can switch it to another track where it would kill only one man."

For this experiment, researchers found that the language of presentation did not affect participants' decisions in the dilemma. In this case, in their own language or a foreign one, the vast majority of participants preferred the utilitarian option.

"People are less afraid of losses, more willing to take risks and much less emotionally-connected when thinking in a foreign language," said co-author Sayuri Hayakawa, a UChicago doctoral student in psychology, via the release.

She concludes the study by stressing on the importance of language.

"You learn your native language as a child and it is part of your family and your culture," she said. "You probably learn foreign languages in less emotional settings like a classroom and it takes extra effort. The emotional content of the language is often lost in translation."

What do you think?

More information regarding the findings can be seen via the journal PLOS ONE.

The two experiments consisted of data from 725 participants, including 397 native speakers of Spanish with English as a foreign language and 328 native speakers of English with Spanish as a foreign language. Each participant received two dilemmas in either their own tongue or a foreign language. 

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