In another language you make different moral choices.
Moral judgement is often considered to be a fixed given, based on deep-seated ideas of what is morally right and morally wrong. But, however counter-intuitive it may seem: recent research shows that people react differently to moral dilemmas when presented in a foreign language than in their native language.
Previous research had already shown how moral judgement is affected by time of day. Language, it turns out, also plays a large role in people’s morality.
Why may this be the case?
A model for moral judgement
Many psychologists consider moral judgement to be a combination of two dynamic forces: One intuitive, automatic process which is triggered by the emotional aspect of any dilemma. The other is a rational, controlled process, characterized by a mindful consideration of the situation and its possible outcomes.
The intuitive process usually leads to so-called deontological judgements, which favour the essential rights of any individual. The rational process in turn is often associated with utilitarian judgements, decisions which put the greater good first, regardless of the effects it may have on an individual. According to this model, the presence of intuitive and rational processes may differ in any given dilemma, allowing moral judgement to be more deontological in some situations, while more utilitarian in another.
The trolley dilemma
To test the hypothesis — people faced with a moral dilemma in a foreign language are more likely to make utilitarian judgements than in their native language– researchers used the so-called trolley dilemma. In this dilemma, a person is about to witness a train crash which will kill five people. The observer has the possibility to stop the train by pushing a man next to him in front of the train, which will kill this man but save the other five.
According to the morality model, choosing to kill one man to save five would be a utilitarian decision. Not to push the man, and kill the five others, would be a more deontological, emotional response.
Participants were a group of 317 students was used with either English, Korean and Spanish as a native language and Spanish, French and Hebrew as a foreign language. They were divided into two random groups, in which the dilemma was presented either in their native or foreign language.
The utilitarian option, of killing the one man and saving five, was chosen more often among all populations. Across the various populations the difference between foreign and native language outcomes ranged between 7.5 percentage points to 65 percentage points, in which Korean subject barely differed depending on the language group they had been assigned.
On average, the utilitarian decisions increased by more than half when the dilemma was presented in a foreign language, confirming the hypothesis.
The experiment also showed an effect of language fluency of people’s moral judgement. Participants with a high language proficiency showed moral judgements resembling that of native speakers. This indicates that increased language proficiency allows for greater emotional grounding and stronger intuitive reactions.
Shifting moral judgements
This research shows, that people’s moral judgement is not a fixed given, but rather is affected by the language in which a dilemma is perceived. Researchers believe this to be due to the fact that people are emotionally more distanced when faced with a situation in a foreign language, allowing for a greater cost-benefit analysis, as people can view the dilemma in more abstract terms.
Decreased cognitive fluency may also play a role, as it slows people’s decision-making speed, causing them to react less intuitively and emotionally, and perhaps more rationally.
The outcomes of this research may have large implications in our modern-day globalized world. Hundreds of millions of people speak a foreign language, which may apparently affect the way in which they encounter moral dilemmas on a daily basis This may become particularly significant for immigrants, people involved in multi-national or transnational organizations and international court systems.
Costa A, Foucart A, Hayakawa S, Aparici M, Apesteguia J, Heafner J, & Keysar B (2014). Your morals depend on language. PloS one, 9 (4) PMID: 24760073
moral, ethics, dilemma, language, foreign, native, judgment