Ethics in a Second Language

Do you tend to favor individual rights over the collective good? In the famed trolley car problem, for example, are you more likely to refuse to kill an individual even if it would save five other innocent people? What would your answer be in French?

A majority of people fit this category, but a strange thing happens to them when they’re forced to think in a second language. A significant percentage turn into utilitarianists, believing in the greater good for the greatest number.

At least that’s the finding in a study reported last month in Public Library of Science One. The study suggests that people who refuse to kill one person to save five are heavily influenced by emotions, but when they are forced to think in a second language, they slow down and emotions become a smaller part of the equation.

“In general, a foreign language elicits less intense emotional reactions relative to a native language,” the researchers write. “Most likely, a foreign language reduces emotional reactivity, promoting cost-benefit considerations, leading to an increase in utilitarian judgments.”

That was a surprising finding. “We tend to think about our ethical decisions as reflecting something fundamental about who we are,” psychologist Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago, one of co-authors of the study, told Wired. “You wouldn’t think they would depend on such a seemingly irrelevant thing as whether you’re using your native language. But it can matter.”

In Keysar’s study of 317 students who spoke more than one language, 20 percent made the utilitarian decision to kill one to save five when they read the dilemma in their native tongue. When they read the problem in their second language, the percentage rose to 33 percent.

The researchers adjusted for cultural differences and came out believing that language is the key. One clue was that the more fluent people were in the second language, the less likely they were to adopt the more utilitarian approach.
“The reduction of the emotionality elicited by a foreign language may promote psychological distance in general. Increasing psychological distance leads individuals to construe situations in more abstract terms, which in some circumstances aligns with more utilitarian decision making,” the researchers conclude.
They add that the findings could be of growing significance, given the increase in worldwide immigration. As more and more people find themselves making decisions in a second language, the impact on decision making will grow.
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