Using A Foreign Language Changes Moral Decisions
    By News Staff | April 28th 2014 01:32 PM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    Would you sacrifice one person to save five?

    Psychologists say those moral choices could depend on whether you are using a foreign language or your native tongue.

    The new paper from the University of Chicago and Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona finds that people using a foreign language take a relatively utilitarian approach to moral dilemmas, making decisions based on assessments of what's best for the common good. That pattern holds even when the utilitarian choice would produce an emotionally difficult outcome, such as sacrificing one life so others could live. 

    The researchers propose that the foreign language elicits a reduced emotional response. That provides a psychological distance from emotional concerns when making moral decisions. Previous studies from both research groups independently found a similar effect for making economic decisions.

    In the new study, two experiments using the well-known "trolley dilemma" tested the hypothesis that when faced with moral choices in a foreign language, people are more likely to respond with a utilitarian approach that is less emotional.

    The first experiment presented participants with the "footbridge" scenario of the trolley dilemma. Study participants are asked to 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. In other words, study participants were faced with the dilemma of choosing between actively sacrificing one person, which violates the moral prohibition against killing, or by inaction allowing five people to die.

    The researchers collected data from people in the U.S., Spain, Korea, France and Israel. Across all populations, more participants selected the utilitarian choice — to save five by killing one — when the dilemmas were presented in the foreign language than when they did the problem in their native tongue.

    Even with randomizing the participants' language groups, "those using a foreign language were twice as likely to respond with the utilitarian approach that is more in the service of the common good of saving more people," said lead author Albert Costa from the Center of Brain and Cognition, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. Costa is currently a visiting professor at the University of Chicago.

    Foreign language impacts moral decisions
    CLICK FOR FULL SIZE. Percentage of Utilitarian Decisions by Language Condition in Experiment 1. Credit:  doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094842

    The second experiment included a version of the dilemma that is less emotional. In this dilemma, the trolley is headed towards the five men, but you can switch it to another track where it would kill only one man. People tend to be more willing to sacrifice the one man by pulling a switch than by pushing him off the footbridge because the action is less emotionally intense, the researchers note. The language of presentation did not affect participants' decisions in this dilemma; with either language, the vast majority of people prefer the utilitarian option in this less emotional scenario.

    The team evaluated 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 the two dilemmas either in their native language or a foreign one. When presented with the less emotional scenario, more than 80 percent of participants preferred to divert the train and that percentage remained high in their native and foreign language. On the other hand, when presented with the more emotional scenario, people are once again significantly more likely to sacrifice one to save five when making the choice in a foreign language.

    "This discovery has important consequences for our globalized world, as many individuals make moral judgments in both native and foreign languages," says Boaz Keysar, Professor of Psychology at UChicago. "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."

    Keysar says decisions appear to be made differently when processed in a foreign language. "People are less afraid of losses, more willing to take risks and much less emotionally-connected when thinking in a foreign language."

    Co-author Sayuri Hayakawa, a University of Chicago doctoral student in psychology, says the way we learn the language is key. "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 this study tells us is that moral judgments can be affected depending on whether the language in which it is presented is a native or foreign one," Costa said. "Awareness of this impact of languages on moral dilemmas is fundamental to making more informed choices."

    Citation: Costa A, Foucart A, Hayakawa S, Aparici M, Apesteguia J, et al. (2014) Your Morals Depend on Language. PLoS ONE 9(4): e94842. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094842. Source: University of Chicago


    I don't know what to make of this study. The only difference for the bilingual people was whether the moral dilemma was read in their native language or in their second acquired language? Maybe they didn't really understand the moral dilemma in the second language. I consider myself fluent in two languages since childhood and have advanced ability in three others learned later in life. However, I often surprise myself how often I misunderstand something written in one of my second acquired languages. I think this is because people who learn a foreign language use many strategies to make up for limited vocabularies by, for instance, trying to guess meaning from context. I can't imagine anyone (of sound mind) willing to physically push someone in front of a streetcar. However, the "push-button" killing of one man to save five others somehow seems less onerous. The study sounds like people who learn a foreign language are more violence-prone which I find hard to believe. On the other hand, I do think my language ability has allowed me to understand many different perspectives that a typical one language speaker might never be exposed to. Maybe this is the enhanced pragmatism of multilingual people the study was trying to prove.

    The "trolley" problem is a moral dilemma only in the sense that it is exceedingly stupid for anyone to think that it represents a moral dilemma.


    I found the article interesting because this may also have implications on the  learning process
    I am a bit perplexed on how the participants were made to understand the situation when the situation was presented in other language? Or shall I ask: Does understanding the situation fully and clearly, matter? 
    Or would it be correct to assume that there was the same full and clear understanding of the situation when presented in the native and foreign language? 
    How were the situations presented? Did the respondents read the information from written words? Or Did they listen from someone reading the situation? or from a picture or motion picture?
    Has any one considered being faced with a moral dilemma in real life and merely 'being presented' with one in one's native language or a second language are very different things? In real life it is very difficult to imagine that any person could see the oncoming trolley, realize that five people were in danger, that a fat corpse blocking the trolley would save them, plan and execute the murder, all in the time the trolley rushes toward the five people. In real life one would probably just grab the fat mans hand and let out a gas, and by then it would be too late to do anything. How long does it take to wrestle a fat man of a footbridge anyway?

    Also, have the team of scientist who conducted this study considered how heavy a trolley is? Even moving at a slow speed it's hard to see that a human body, even a very very fat one, would have much more effect than a bag of water against all those oncoming tons of metal. Perhaps even the participants in the study had more common sense than the scientist and realized this, and that effected their decision.

    Also, should not the participant wonder if the fat man will hit his mark? it is very possible that he might land in the wrong place.

    Maybe they should interview some bilingual students of physics.

    And regardless of whether the fat man's murder stops the trolley or not, what is the participant/hero f the day to tell the judge and policeman?

    Maybe they should interview some bilingual lawyers.

    it doesn't give breakdowns by sex or age. seems that those would be useful stats in analyzing the data. it would also be interesting to see the responses with the same scenarios but different players. what if it's a beautiful woman on the catwalk and five obese men on the tracks? what if it's a child and five women? a teen and 5 babies? ah, the things to be learned about human psychology are vast and varied.