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Making Morally Ambiguous Decisions Is Easier In A Foreign Language

Language isn't only about what you say. It's about how your brain perceives it.

Making Morally Ambiguous Decisions Is Easier In A Foreign Language

[Photo: eriktham/iStock]

Thinking in another language changes how we make decisions, and even affects our moral judgement. You may be more likely to do something risky if you make the decision in a foreign tongue, but you may also make better decisions because you suffer from fewer biases.

In a series of studies, language and cognitive science professor Albert Costa of Spain's University Pompeu Fabra explores the effects of language on our behavior. Much existing research, he says, treats language as a mere conduit for information. That is, it doesn’t matter in which language you receive information. What matters, says current thinking, is how things are framed or described. But, writes Costa, "A rapidly growing body of research suggests that, even when the content of a message is exactly the same, decisions depend on whether the information is delivered in a native or foreign tongue."

If you speak more than one language, you’ll already be aware that you think and behave differently depending on which one you’re using. It’s easier to express feelings and ideas that might choke you in your native language, making frank, honest conversation easier. Insults, too, seem to slip off and offend less us when not in our own language.

[Photo: Flickr user laurent Bertrais]

Another study, lead by Janet Geipel at the University of Trento in Italy looked at the effects of language on our moral judgements. In this study, participants were asked to judge the "moral wrongness" of taboo violations: consensual incest, for instance. Their levels of moral acceptance or outrage varied according to language. In one experiment, participants were treated to the classic trolley dilemma: A runaway rail trolley is headed towards five people. It will kill them all, but if you pull a lever, the trolley will be diverted to another track and will kill only one person. What do you do? Murderous action, or even worse inaction? A variation, called the footbridge dilemma, requires that you push a workman off a bridge to save the five trolley passengers.

In this study, the participants were more likely to shove the workman off the bridge if they were given the problem in a foreign language. Interestingly, they were equally likely to pull the lever whichever language was used. This, say the authors, is because the footbridge dilemma involves a taboo action—pushing a man off a bridge to his death—whereas the lever variation is morally difficult, but involves no taboos. Breaking these taboos, concludes the study, is much easier when you are dissociated by a foreign language.

There are physiological effects, too. Geipel cites a 2006 paper where "childhood reprimands, such as ‘Don't do that!,’ evoked reduced skin conductance responses when they were read aloud in a foreign language."

It seems, then, that emotions are minimized when we speak in a non-native language. This can help or hinder our decisions-making ability. "Whether using a foreign language leads to better or worse decisions entirely depends on the type of problem that the user is trying to solve," says Costa. For decisions that benefit from an emotional reaction, speaking in our own tongue is better, whereas for harder-headed decisions, a foreign language provides a useful distance, what Costa calls a "bird’s eye view."

In the realms of decision-making, this is certainly interesting to know, but what about people living permanently in a foreign country, and speaking a language other than their mother tongue? Do we acclimate over time, or will our first language always be the only one in which we feel emotionally immersed? Neither study addresses this, but perhaps it explains why you never quite feel at home, no matter how long you live in a foreign country.

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