Beware: Language Affects Moral Decision-making

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Lots of things affect moral decision-making. A new set of studies reveals that whether we reason in our native language or a foreign one also affects the outcome.

Here’s a model moral dilemma you may or may not have heard. 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, his impact would stop the train and save the five workers. Would you push him?

Researchers in Chicago (US) and Barcelona (Spain) found that the answer depended on whether they read the scenario in their mother tongue or a foreign language. Of the 725 subjects, only18% of those reading and answering in their native tongue would push him off; but 44% of those questioned in a foreign language said they would!

The main factor differentiating the two groups appears to be the amount of emotional content that may be lost in the translation. “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” notes Sayuri Hayakawa, in an interview with Science Daily. They also found that the greater an individual’s proficiency in a foreign language, the more closely the decision patterns resemble those of native speakers.

In our world of increased globalization, the implications of the study are important. Increased familiarity with a language brings an emotional grounding similar to that of a native tongue. Therefore, as we send people to new countries, it may be important to make sure that they are familiar with the foreign language not just to navigate the country and increase rapport with clients and partners, but also to make important moral decisions. If they lack such proficiency, when treading on sensitive topics, they should bring with them someone who is grounded in the local language and customs.

Have you had any relevant experiences? Please share them!