Using a Foreign Language Could Affect Moral Judgement

By Carl Engelking | April 29, 2014 3:51 pm

moral decision

Would you push a man off a bridge and into the path of an oncoming train to prevent the speeding locomotive from killing five people further down the track? Your answer to this moral dilemma may depend upon the language in which it is asked.

Psychologists from the University of Chicago and Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona found that people who speak multiple languages tended to take a more utilitarian approach to this moral dilemma when it was presented in their non-native tongue. Researchers say their results indicate that the use of foreign languages reduces our emotional response and provides psychological distance when making moral decisions.

The Trolley Dilemma

Research has previously found that foreign languages blunt some emotional responses. For instance, people are more rational when making certain emotionally-charged decisions when the options are presented in a foreign language.

To see whether this phenomenon applied to ethical judgments, researchers recruited 725 bilingual people in the United States, Spain, Korea, France and Israel. They presented participants with the classic “trolley dilemma,” outlined above, in their native language and their second language. 

When presented with the dilemma in their native tongue, only 20 percent of participants chose to push the man off the footbridge. In contrast, 33 percent chose to push the man to his death when they were presented the dilemma in a foreign language. The findings were published last week in the journal PLOS.

Broader Implications

Researchers say that this difference is caused by the increased psychological distance of using a foreign language. Contrary to our sense that our morals are deep-seated in our personality, the findings imply that emotions, and language, play a key role in such ethical decisions.

Researchers say their results have important implications for decision-making processes in a globalized world. Taking into account the influence of using foreign languages, they say, could help us check our responses to everyday moral dilemmas. It’s worth pointing out, for instance, that in the ongoing global negotiations such as those over climate change—a potentially very emotional subject—most of the negotiations are taking place in delegates’ secondary tongue.


Photo credit: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology
  • Robert Karl Stonjek

    These so called ‘moral dilemma’ games are riddled with flaws and should not be taken seriously.

    many people would trust a source of information that says that if they
    take a certain action, murdering an individual, that other people might
    be saved??

    the person in the real situation does nothing they will be free of
    blame. If they take responsibility for the situation, an enormous leap
    that few people have the confidence to make, especially when the murder
    of one individual is involved, then they will be charged with murder of
    that one individual.

    is up to a jury to decide if that person really was in possession of
    information reliable enough that five people would be killed if one
    person was not murdered and therefore the murder was justified.

    Some jurisdictions would still charge and convict the person of manslaughter even if it was a choice between 5 or 1.

    people know damned well that this is what they risk if they take
    responsibility for a situation which is none of their business,
    especially if they have no experience of knowledge in the working and
    function of railways.

    is naive in the extreme to believe that every single person in the USA
    is too stupid to have knowledge of the real conditions and for this to
    influence their decisions even if they are told not to. If this was not
    the case then every single person would make the simple arithmetical
    calculation that 1 is less than 5.

  • John Leonard

    I don’t know. I speak 2 languages and even mix them when I think to myself…hmmmm…..over 30 years…no…I have never had any moral dilemma based depending on what language I am using. Sorry but this is so BS!!!

    • NerinaPistorius

      I agree. I feel that every person consist of their one personality aswell.

      • enderbean117

        Yeah, but did you grow up speaking both languages? Or did you adopt 1 along the way. The article is talking about languages that are completely foreign to you. I myself grew up speaking both English and Spanish, I also mix the two, I wouldn’t consider either foreign. But if I were to speak in French or Japanese, the two languages I picked up along the way, I would consider those foreign, Japanese more so than French.


      I do the same as well. Some days there are 3 different words going through my head, meaning the same thing in 3 different languages. I have never had a problem with any moral hazard while being presented a scenario in any of the 3. So, I call BS as well.

    • sss45

      You really don’t understand the crux of the article.

      There is “increased psychological distance of using a foreign language”

      If you mix 2 languages in your thoughts then neither of those is really foreign, for purposes of this discussion.

    • eirikr1

      although I agree with Leonard and bucephalus, both of them are biased…they mention ** their ** lack of moral dilemma, in their opinion. but the opinion of others might be that it’s totally immoral, or that there is no dilemma because it’s moral.

      Personally, the subj of what is moral is too subjective to be presented in such a (pretended) scientific format to begin with.

  • BRIan

    I would want to speak to a lawyer first.

    • eirikr1

      speak with a lawyer in my primary language, or whatever we can both speak.

  • Longmire

    The surest way to change a society would be to change their language. Language not only shapes our internal world it also fundamentally divides our shared world. Morally speaking I would be more willing to push a person off the bridge if they said”مهلا ننظر في تلك البلهاء ” or if the people further down the track were yelling “pomoc” I would leave the person be on the bridge. Obviously that shouldn’t be the case but surely it is so. Hopefully someone with at least one eye open creates a logical scientifically detached language that future generation can at least learn along with other more noble languages. But that will take awhile since in our current time some humans still use clicks to convey information.

  • Michael Hardisty

    It may be important to ask the question of how well the participants knew their second language. Perhaps, if they weren’t bilingual, the more conscious process of translation was distracting them from the ethics problem. There is plenty of scientific evidence that suggests the human brain does not perform well at multitasking.

  • Florentinapetillo1

    I speak 4 languages, one dialect, and I understand (and lightly converse) in two more.
    I grew up with only one language and the dialect.
    The only thing I can tell you is that I CANNOT swear in my mother’s tongue, nor in my dialect, but I have absolutely no problem doing it in the other languages, including English.
    I had long realized that my native language is emotionally closer to me.
    So, I would say the article has a point.

  • Martina Gleissenebner-Teskey

    This result doesn’t say anything about our value systems but just proves the fact that a greater deal of conscious thinking takes place when we need to speak in a foreign language. And always, when we need to make the effort to think consciously (fast vs. slow thinking) it happens at the expense of emotions.


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