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People Speaking a Foreign Language Make Less Emotional Decisions

And they give much more weight to utilitarian concerns


Humor is notoriously lost in translation. And there are lots of ways personalities shift when we switch language. A recent study in the Public Library of Science shows that our moral judgments may be affected by language, too. 

Unlike language-dependent puns or sarcasm, we like to think that moral decisions are rooted in steadfast principles of right and wrong. But researchers have recently argued that people make systematically different judgments depending on whether they face a moral dilemma in a foreign or native language. (The study was conducted by Albert Costa and Alice Foucart, Universitat Pompeu Fabra; Sayuri Hayakawa and Boaz Keysar, University of Chicago Department of Psychology; Melina Aparici, Department de Psicologia Basica, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona; Jose Apesteguia, Department of Economics, Universitat Pompeu Fabra; and Joy Heafner, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, University of Connecticut.) 

Moral judgment is driven—according to the model used by the researchers—by the interaction of two dominant forces: intuitive processes, which are prompted by the emotional content of a given dilemma; and rational processes, which are driven by a controlled, conscious evaluation of potential outcomes. The intuitive process tends to support judgments that favor the essential rights of a person, such as a right to privacy, to life, or to freedom from cruel treatment, while the rational process supports utilitarian judgments favoring the greater good, regardless of an individual’s rights. For example, a utilitarian might approve of the occasional torture of suspected terrorists if it would secure a safer, happier world for everyone else.   

According to the study, people using a foreign language make substantially more utilitarian decisions when they’re faced with a moral dilemma. Costa and his colleagues came to this conclusion by presenting participants from the United States, Korea, France, Spain, and Israel with the same scenario: A train is about to kill five people, and the only way to stop it is to push a man in front of it. Though this would kill the man, it would save the five people. A utilitarian analysis would dictate sacrificing one to save five. Half the subjects were asked this question in their native language, the other half in a foreign language. 

Across all populations, more participants selected the utilitarian choice when using a foreign language. (On average, the rate of utilitarian decision-making went up bymore than one-half compared to the rate of utilitarian decision-making in anative tongue.) Researchers explain this in terms of the reduced emotional response: The increased psychological distance of thinking and speaking in an alien tongue reduces the impact of intuitive emotional concerns. As a result, people tend to favor rational, cost-benefit considerations.

Of course, people vary in their levels of foreign-language proficiency. Researchers thus hypothesized that preferences for utilitarian responses would vary accordingly. A further experiment, which divided participants into groups based on proficiency, showed that increased proficiency helps people become more emotionally grounded in a foreign language. The number of utilitarian responses in the low-proficiency group was significantly larger than in the high-proficiency group.

“It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation,” writes Salman Rushdie in Imaginary Homelands; “I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.” The trade-offs may be even more extensive than Rushdie had imagined. 

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