Study: You are likely to make immoral decisions while speaking a second language.

Language sits deep within every one of us. It influences the way we see the world and guides how we relate to one another and to events happening around us. Studies have long shown that people who speak more than one language may unconsciously change their personality when they switch between the languages they speak.

Recently, a study has shown something even more interesting/disturbing: the languages we speak interfere with and direct our moral choices. The researchers from The University of Chicago have particularly shown that people are more likely to make immoral decisions when speaking a foreign language.

How familiar are you with the moral dilemma known as the trolly problem? Imagine that a runaway trolley is careening toward a group of five people standing on the tracks, unable to move. You are next to a switch that can shift the trolley to a different set of tracks, thereby sparing the five people, but resulting in the death of one who is standing on the side tracks. Do you pull the switch?

Most people would agree to pull the switch, no matter the language they speak. However, things get a little tricky if the situation were slightly similar: what if the only way to stop the trolley is by pushing a large stranger off a footbridge into its path? People tend to be very reluctant to say they would do this, even though in both scenarios, one person is sacrificed to save five. The study has shown that if asked this question in your native language, you’d likely refuse to make the shove. But if the question was posed in a foreign tongue, you’d more easily conclude that five lives are worth more than one—and choose to push someone to their death.


In fact, in an earlier study, conducted in 2014 by Albert Costa,  it has been demonstrated that posing the dilemma in a language that volunteers had learned as a foreign tongue dramatically increased their stated willingness to shove the sacrificial person off the footbridge, from fewer than 20% of respondents working in their native language to about 50% of those using the foreign one. (Both native Spanish- and English-speakers were included, with English and Spanish as their respective foreign languages; the results were the same for both groups, showing that the effect was about using a foreign language, and not about which particular language—English or Spanish—was used.)

The researchers at The University of Chicago think they can explain this. They suggest that our relationship to language shapes and influences our mental imagery in response to events around us. They argue that, unlike native languages, foreign languages give rise to less vivid mental imagery. Co-author and psychologist Sayuri Hayakawa writes that “the languages we use are not simply interchangeable vehicles for transmitting ideas, rather, the language itself can change how we think and feel about those ideas.”

The researchers devised a test to determine the relationship between the language spoken, the vividness of mental images produced, and the moral decision made. They asked over 700 German speakers, who speak English as a second language, to consider the moral dilemma of saving five people by killing one.

They were split into two groups and were asked to each consider the problem in one of the two languages, German or English. They rated their decisions on a scale of 1-7 (1 being intensely opposed to sacrificing a life, and 7 being certain that saving a life is right). They were also asked to rate the vividness of the mental picture of the scene, including the person to be sacrificed and the five people who could be saved, on a similar scale (1 being no image and 7 being absolutely clear image.


As was expected, the vividness of the individual to be sacrificed influenced the moral choices of the subjects involved. Ultimately, native German speakers generally couldn’t visualize the scene, the five people to be saved, or the potential individual to be sacrificed when listening to a description in English.

This “suggests that our mental images change when using a foreign tongue, leading to downstream consequences for how we make decisions,” the researchers write.

Hayakawa wrote to Quartz that:

When a scene is described in your native language, those words are intimately linked to a rich store of memories and associations, which help build a vivid image of what you’re hearing. But foreign languages won’t elicit as clear imagery because they’re less often associated with deep formative experiences.

Source: Quartz.

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