Last month, psychologists at the University of Chicago discovered that speaking in a foreign language affects a person’s moral judgment. What they determined was that speaking in a foreign language encourages the speaker to act in favor of the “greatest good for the greatest number” of people.
Philosophers generally divide ethics into two major categories: utilitarianism and deontology. Utilitarianism was developed by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. Its basic argument is that actions are morally right if they benefit a majority.
On the other hand, the doctrine of deontology are based on the ideas of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant and proclaims that the action itself is more important than the consequences.
The famous trolley problem helps to demonstrate the two ethical categories. In the problem a runaway trolley races down tracks toward where it will hit five people, killing them. A person standing at the lever has the ability to pull it so the trolley will only hit one person.
A utilitarian holds that the person must pull the lever to switch the direction of the trolley. A deontologist believes that the moral choice is to do nothing. Psychologists have found that a phenomenon known as the moral foreign-language effect (MFLE) causes people to favor utilitarian choices.
Researchers, led by Sayuri Hayakawa, ran a new study to uncover the causes of the MFLE. Psychologists have determined that humans generally make moral judgements in a system with two choices, known as a dual-process framework.In this framework, people generally rely on either a quick “gut-based feeling” characterized by emotion or by careful deliberation over a longer period of time.
Studies have shown that people generally make more emotional decisions based on deontology and more calculated decisions based on utilitarianism.
Scientists have observed that people tend to make more utilitarian choices when they’re speaking in a foreign language, potentially due to the strenuous effort of operating in a non-native language.
“Until now, we and others have described how using a foreign language affects the way that we think,” Boaz Keysar, the University of Chicago psychology professor in whose lab the research was conducted, said according to ScienceDaily. “We always had explanations, but they were not tested directly. This is really the first paper that explains why, with evidence.”
Hayakawa and her team hypothesized that the MFLE affected moral choices in one of two ways. In one way, the use of foreign language stunts emotional processing, thereby eliminating a person’s capability to utilize deontological methods of thinking.
In the other way, the person’s unfamilarity of the language impairs their speed in decision making, increasing deliberation and swaying them to favor the utilitarian idea of maximizing welfare.
In past years researchers have been unable to shed light on whether foreign language use affects moral decision by heightening utilitarian considerations, blunting deontological considerations or both.
By conducting a series of six experiments, the University of Chicago psychologists attempted to separate deontological responding from utilitarian responding to determine how the MFLE affects cognition.
To do so the team used a process-dissociation technique to differentiate automatic processes, such as deontological reasoning, from controlled processes, like utilitarian reasoning.
The team conducted six separate experiments with six different groups of test subjects. For each experiment the team used 200 participants, all of whom were bilingual and had learned their second language in a classroom setting.
The groups included native speakers of English, German and Spanish. The team randomly chose participants to complete the experiment in either their native or foreign language. They then presented 20 moral dilemmas to the participants, which varied in key ways.
The scenarios ranged from the classical trolley thought experiment to other unique variants. For example, instead of killing a man to save five people from death, they might be asked if they would kill him to save five people from minor injuries.
“If you have enough of these paired scenarios, you can start gauging what are the factors that people are paying attention to,” Hayakawa said, according to ScienceDaily. “We found that people using a foreign language were not paying any more attention to the lives saved, but definitely were less averse to breaking these kinds of rules. So if you ask the classic question, ‘Is it the head or the heart?’ It seems that the foreign language gets to the heart.”
Overall, the experiments showed that foreign language stunted deontological processing. Hayakawa and her team found no evidence that foreign language maximizes utilitarian reasoning.
In three experiments, participants showed a decrease in utilitarianism. The team concluded that people are more utilitarian in a foreign language because they feel less, rather than because they think more.
“Your native language is acquired from your family, from your friends, from television,” Hayakawa explained. “It becomes infused with all these emotions.”