Kill One Man to Save Five Others? Moral Decisions and How Language Affects Them

languageMillions of people on earth speak more than one language, yet new research strongly indicates that decisions made in the mother tongue are more emotional than those made in a foreign, or learned, language. Clearly this has a major impact on all sorts of areas of communication, not least politics and law. In a test, 725 participants were asked to choose whether to push one overweight person out-of-the-way of an oncoming train to save five others working further up the track. When asked in their non-native tongue, they overwhelmingly chose to kill the bystander.

The decision to break a moral code and kill a person seemed easier to make, and more pragmatic, when considered in a second language context. In theory, the answer should not depend on any other factor other than the understanding of the question. But this is not so.

The research, colloquially called “The Trolley Problem,” was carried out by Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, with the lead author being Albert Costa and co-author Sayuri Hayakawa. Commenting on the work, published in Science Daily, Boaz Keysar, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, said that their discoveries had “important consequences” for our “globalized world.” The two universities worked together on this research. Costa is a visiting professor and Hayakawa is a doctoral student at Chicago.

In the test, most of those questioned (over 300) were Spanish speakers, with English as their second language. A smaller percentage were English speakers, who had learned Spanish. The Spanish speakers did not opt to push the “hombre grande” off the bridge. However, when they read about him in English, they were far more likely to dispel the “large man.” Likewise, in reverse, the English speakers were happier to dispose of the “hombre grande” to save the five others, than they were to topple the “large man.”

Data was also collected from people living in the United States, France, Korea and Israel. Across all of these countries, the results remained the same. The willingness to sacrifice the one life to save the others was favored when not given to them in the native language.

Costa and Hayakawa conclude that the response to the question in the “foreign” language is not rooted in emotion, and thus can be a more considered and practical choice. Sayuri Hayakawa observes that the language learnt from birth is part of a person’s identity, culture and family ties. Therefore it is inevitably more linked to an emotional mindset. A new language, learned later in life, most probably in a classroom environment, is far less profound. Often, the emotional resonances in the language are “lost in translation” anyway. This does become less so, however, the more proficient the speaker is in that newer, acquired language.

To expand the experiment, the researchers introduced a second predicament. In this question, the large man was asked to stand on a different branch of the track, and to save the five others, all it would take was to pull a lever and shift the points. As this was a much less emotional decision that having to physically push the man, a large proportion of people in both groups choose the pull the lever, around 80 percent.

The emotional effect only came into play, linguistically, when the stakes were much higher, and the decision had to be made to exert the force to push and kill the man.

Boaz Keysar has suggested ways these findings about moral judgements and language may be implemented. Juries, he proposes, may be best composed of immigrants as they would be bringing a non-emotional reaction to evidence presented to them not in their native tongue. By contrast, there are other occasions when it is more imperative to stick to the moral guidelines and, in those instances, the analytical, “cooler” reaction may not be desirable.

Complex ethical issues arise every day in international affairs, and in multi-lingual settings. Knowing that the language a person is addressed in will affect their interpretation of the issues is an important clue to better understanding in all communications.

Albert Costa has remarked that in institutions such as the United Nations, The European Union and indeed all large international firms, and organizations being able to predict these impacts on deliberations will be “better explained.” It appears that people are much less averse to loss, more willing to take risks and less emotional when thinking and judging is conducted in a learned language.

To kill one man to save five others is a moral judgement that is heavily influenced by language. Morals are not as absolute as may have been supposed.

By Kate Henderson


The Independent
Science Daily
Plos One

You must be logged in to post a comment Login