A fascinating article published in ‘Psychology Today’ by Lawrence T. White PhD discusses the concept of the Moral Foreign Language Effect. This is the phenomenon whereby bilingual individuals are more likely to make Utilitarian choices, i.e choose to sacrifice one life to save 5 others, when questioned in a language that is not their own.

2014 research from the University of Chicago conducted by psychologists Sayuri Hayakawa, Boaz Keysar, and their colleagues found that people are more Utilitarian when using a foreign language than when using their native language. (Utilitarianism being a principle based on doing the greatest good for the greatest number.)

When bilingual people are confronted with an ethical dilemma, in this case, the footbridge version of the famous trolley dilemma (see right), they are more likely to sacrifice the life of the man when asked in a language that is not their own.

‘There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very large man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?’

The Footbridge Trolley Dilemma. 

The researchers found that the thought of pushing a man to his death is emotionally troubling, even when it results in five lives being saved. Interestingly, when this idea is expressed in a non-native language it was found to have less emotional impact.

One possible explanation for this is that is that using a foreign language requires more brain power, which causes the individual to slow down and think more carefully and rationally. In the trolley problem, sacrificing one life to save five is the most rational option, so when forced to think more deliberately, this decision is more easily reached.

The original researchers themselves seem to find another option more likely. They state in their report; “people are more utilitarian when using a foreign language not because they think more, but because they feel less”. They concluded that using a foreign language inhibits emotional processing, making it easier to choose the utilitarian option and sacrifice the life.

What do you think of the Moral Foreign Language Effect? Let us know on our Twitter page if you would find making difficult decisions easier in a non-native language!

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