Would you push a stranger off a bridge? How your morals depend on language

A new study reveals that our moral standing is affected by whether we are reasoning in our native tongue, or in a foreign language

You’re on a railway bridge. Below you, a train is heading full speed towards five unsuspecting people working on the track. There is a fat man standing on the bridge with you. If you shoved him off, his impact would stop the train, and you would save the five workers. Would you push him?

According to new research, your answer to that question depends largely on whether you are reading it as a native English speaker, or as someone with a different mother tongue. Researchers from the University of Chicago and the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona presented this moral dilemma to 725 participants, most of whom were native speakers of Spanish with English as a foreign language, or native speakers of English with Spanish as a foreign language. They discovered that when participants were presented with the dilemma in their native tongue, they were far less likely to opt for pushing the fat man than those who read the description in their second language. Native English speakers were almost twice as likely to push "el hombre grande" than "the large man". Breaking a moral code by killing the bystander seems easier to do when considering the problem in a language learnt later in life. The authors of the study attribute this to the fact that foreign language appears to trigger a less emotional response, leaving people more able to make a pragmatic decision.

"This discovery has important consequences for our globalised world, as many individuals make moral judgments in both native and foreign languages," Boaz Keysar, Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago, told Science Daily. He suggests, for example, that immigrants may be better equipped to act as jury members, as they are likely to respond less emotionally to the evidence presented in the local language. In other situations, an adherence to moral rules could be more important than the ability to make a cool, utilitarian analysis of the facts. In such cases, it may be beneficial to communicate in a person’s native tongue.

To clarify the role emotions play in mediating the effect between language and moral decision making, the researchers included a second dilemma. In their alternative scenario, the lone man is on a different branch of the railway track, and all you would need to do to save the five workers (and kill that single man), is to divert the train by switching a lever. This is a less distressing action, and regardless of language, the majority of people would divert the train in this way (around 80%). The effect of language only comes into play when dealing with a higher level of affect, such as imagining having to physically push the man off the bridge. In that unpleasant scenario, only 18% of native speakers would sacrifice the large man, compared to 44% of those questioned in a foreign language.

According to co-author Sayuri Hayakawa, the connection between language and emotion makes sense. "You learn your native language as a child and it is part of your family and your culture. You probably learn foreign languages in less emotional settings like a classroom. The emotional content of the language is often lost in translation," she told Science Daily. The findings of the study do suggest, however, that the greater an individual’s proficiency in a foreign language, the more closely their decision patterns resemble those of native speakers. This suggests that increased familiarity with a language brings an emotional grounding which can match that of a mother tongue.

With hugely significant ethical questions being addressed in international politics in a range of languages that are native to some, and foreign to others, the importance of understanding the effect of language on decision making seems clear. Albert Costa of the Pompeu Fabra University and leader of the present study, says that being able to predict how language affects our judgement is fundamental in making informed choices on how communications take place.

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