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Moral Judgment Influenced by What Language You Speak

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Though one might expect a person to judge a moral dilemma the same way regardless of the language used to understand the problem, research suggests that this is not the case. Scientific evidence supports the conclusion that people are more likely to make utilitarian decisions when considering a problem in a foreign language.

Research participants were presented with a variation upon a classic moral dilemma. In this thought experiment, one is asked to imagine standing at the top of a foot bridge that extends over a train track. Below, an out-of-control train careens towards a group of five helpless people. It is possible to save these five people by pushing a much larger person off of the bridge and in front of the train. The larger person will surely die, but the group of five people would be saved.

Many people struggle with this dilemma because of the need to balance two ethical practices. On the one hand, sacrificing one life to save five others would be for the “greater good.” On the other hand, pushing someone off a bridge to their certain death violates the moral guideline against killing.

To understand the influence that different languages have upon a person’s moral judgment, researchers posed this dilemma to people either in their native tongue or in a learned, foreign language.  For example, native English-speaking Americans that could also speak Spanish were asked to read the scenario and answer in either English or in Spanish. The researchers also evaluated Korean and English speakers from Korea, English and French speakers from France, and English, Spanish, and Hebrew speakers from Israel.

After determining that each participant could adequately comprehend the scenario, one might expect that a subject’s moral judgment would be consistent regardless of the language used to present the dilemma. However it was found that within all the studied groups, subjects were more likely to choose the utilitarian option of killing one person to save five if the problem was presented in a foreign language. In some groups this difference smaller; Koreans were only 7.5 percent more likely to choose the utilitarian option when asked in English than in Korean. However in Israel, native English or Spanish speakers were 65 percent more likely to make sacrifices for the greater good when asked in Hebrew.

Part of these differences in moral judgment can be interpreted as a reflection of different cultural values. For example, when asked in their native Korean language, not a single Korean participant indicated that they would be willing to push someone off a bridge to save a group of people. The researchers suggested that this may be due to cultural prohibitions, and cited previous research that indicates East Asians are less likely to choose the utilitarian options when faced with a moral dilemma. Conversely, the researchers also indicated that Spanish-speaking societies tend to emphasize the importance of the common good. This was one explanation offered as to why participants responding in their non-native Spanish were more likely to push the large person off of the bridge.

The increase in utilitarian decision-making may also be related to the increased emotional distance that one experience while speaking a foreign language. Previous studies have indicated that people speaking in a foreign language display less emotion (as evaluated by skin conductance tests) than they do when speaking in their mother-tongue. In addition, people show greater agitation when lying in their native language than in a foreign one. Thus, it falls to reason that in this experiment participants were more likely to kill one person to save a group because their emotional aversion to killing another human being was reduced.

The discovery that the native-ness of a language used to present a moral dilemma can influence one’s moral judgment is an important consideration for the rapidly globalizing world. The authors note that not only immigrants, but also organizations such as the United Nations, European Union, and international corporations are faced with the need to simultaneously make decisions and communicate in foreign languages. As such, responsible policy-makers must be cognizant not only of the content of a moral dilemma, but also the way in which the problem is presented as factors that may influence the decision-making process.

By Sarah Takushi


International Journal of Psychophysiology




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