Moral decisions influenced by language?
How would you respond to a choice between sacrificing one person and saving five? Your decision could vary depending on whether you are using a foreign language or your native tongue, a study indicates.
People using a foreign language take a relatively utilitarian approach to moral dilemmas, making decisions based on assessments of what is best for the common good.
Decisions appear to be made differently when processed in a foreign language, said Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology at University of Chicago.
"People are less afraid of losses, more willing to take risks and much less emotionally-connected when thinking in a foreign language," Keysar explained.
The researchers used the well-known "trolley dilemma" to test their hypothesis. They evaluated data from 725 participants, including 397 native speakers of Spanish with English as a foreign language, and 328 native speakers of English with Spanish as a foreign language.
The first experiment presented participants with the "footbridge" scenario of the trolley dilemma.
Study participants are asked to imagine they are standing on a footbridge overlooking a train track when they see that an on-coming train is about to kill five people. The only way to stop it is to push a heavy man off the footbridge in front of the train.
That action will kill the man but save the five people.
The second experiment included a version of the dilemma that is less emotional. In this dilemma, the trolley is headed towards the five men, but you can switch it to another track where it would kill only one man.
People tend to be more willing to sacrifice the one man by pulling a switch than by pushing him off the footbridge because the action is less emotionally intense, the researchers noted.
When presented with the more emotional scenario, people are significantly more likely to sacrifice one to save five when making the choice in a foreign language, showed the study.
"This discovery has important consequences for our globalised world, as many individuals make moral judgments in both native and foreign languages," Keysar noted.
"Deliberations at places like the United Nations, the European Union, large international corporations or investment firms can be better explained or made more predictable by this discovery," said Albert Costa, psychologist at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain.
(Posted on 29-04-2014)
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