Do your morals change when you use a foreign language?


“Should you sacrifice one man to save five? Whatever your answer, it should not depend on whether you were asked the question in your native language or a foreign tongue so long as you understood the problem.”

So begins a fascinating paper published last month in the journal PLOS ONE. But the authors of the paper, led by Albert Costa from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, have found evidence that “people using a foreign language make substantially more utilitarian decisions when faced with such moral dilemmas.”

In their study, participants were presented with the classic “trolley dilemma”. Imagine you’re standing on a footbridge and can see an approaching train is about to kill five people. The only way you can stop the train is to push a fat man off the footbridge in front of the train – this will kill the fat man, but it will save the five people.

Dr Costa’s team found that participants were more likely to make the utilitarian choice – saving five people by killing the fat man – when the dilemma was presented in a foreign language, rather than in their native tongue.

“This discovery has important consequences for our globalized world, as many individuals make moral judgments in both native and foreign languages,” said Boaz Keysar from the University of Chicago, who was one of the authors of the paper. “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.”

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