Your language or your morals

Does language influence moral decisions?

Very much so, according to a study by researchers at the University of Chicago and Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

They posed the question: would you choose to push one person off a bridge in front of a moving train, knowing that his fall (and subsequent death) would stop the train and prevent it from running over 5 people. In other words, is one life less precious than five lives?

The researchers collected data from 725 participants in France, Spain, the U.S., Korea and Israel and found that more participants selected the utilitarian choice when the problem was presented in a foreign language rather than their native language. “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, according to Science Daily.

“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” states Costa.

Why is this important? Because as actors in a globalized world, we rely heavily on interactions in a foreign language. Do our emotions take second place when we think in a foreign language? Are we distancing ourselves from the consequences of our decisions? Is decision-making influenced by the words we use to describe the dilemma, and not by the dilemma itself?

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 from the University of Chicago, says that the emotional context in which we learn a language also plays a part in the decision.

“You learn your native language as a child and it is part of your family and your culture,” she says. “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.”

It may be important to ask how well the participants understood the dilemma in a foreign language (not bilingual, but foreign).

Were they focusing on understanding the language or just solving the problem?

Do the words used in the explanation have exact correspondents in the foreign language?

Is the dilemma processed in the same part of the brain when it’s presented in a foreign language?


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