A team of international researchers says people using a foreign language are more likely to make utilitarian decisions when faced with a moral dilemma.

The team led by psychologist Albert Costa at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona reported results from two experiments in the April 2014 issue of PLoS ONE, an open-access science journal.

In the first experiment, more than 300 participants in the United States, Korea, France, and Israel considered the “footbridge” version of the well-known trolley dilemma.

A small train is about to plow into five people.  The only way to save them is to push a large, heavy man off a footbridge that overlooks the track.  The man will fall in front of the train and stop its forward motion, thereby saving the lives of the people on the track.  What is the right thing to do?  Should you push the man off the bridge or not intervene?  Previous studies have determined that most people choose to not intervene.

In Costa’s experiment, half of the participants read the scenario and indicated their decision in their native tongue.  Other participants followed the same procedure but used a foreign language throughout.  All participants were proficient enough in the language to understand the scenario and the questions, as indicated by a comprehension check.

Choosing to push the man in front of the train is said to be a utilitarian decision because sacrificing one life to save five produces the greatest good for the greatest number.  In Costa’s experiment, only 20% of participants chose the utilitarian option when using their native language, but the percentage increased by more than half (to 33%) when participants used a foreign language.

To explain their surprising finding, Costa and his colleagues argue that the idea of pushing a man to his death is emotionally repugnant, even if it saves five lives.  That’s why most people choose to do nothing.  Foreign languages, however, lack the emotional impact of one’s native language.  Obscene words, for example, don’t pack the same punch when we hear them in a foreign language, and measures of bodily arousal reveal that emotional phrases presented in a foreign language don’t provoke the same visceral reaction.  In short, the idea of sacrificing a life is always horrific but less so when you think about it in a foreign tongue.

To test their hypothesis, Costa and his colleagues conducted a second experiment.  They asked hundreds of native Spanish speakers (who also spoke English) and native English speakers (who also spoke Spanish) to consider two versions of the trolley dilemma, the footbridge version and a “switch” version.  In the switch version, a train is heading toward five people on the track but you can throw a switch that will divert the train onto a sidetrack, where it will kill just one person.  Should you throw the switch?

Throwing a switch is said to be emotionally easier than pushing a man to his death.  So people should be more willing to throw a switch than push a man off a bridge.  In fact, 81% of participants in the switch version chose to throw the switch.  The opposite pattern was found in the footbridge version:  Only 18% chose to push the man to his death in order to save five lives.

But what about the language used?  If throwing a switch is emotionally easier, then the language used should matter more in the emotionally-charged footbridge version than in the switch version.  In fact, the language used made no difference at all in the switch version.  In the footbridge version, however, the language used made a huge difference:  44% of participants using a foreign language made the utilitarian choice (to push the man); only 18% of participants using their native language made the same choice.

The language we use when we make moral judgments shouldn’t matter.  Moral and ethical decisions should be based on more relevant factors.  In today’s global society, millions of people make ethical choices every day using a language that is not truly their own.  Some of these people work for the United Nations, the European Union, the Peace Corps, or a multinational investment firm.  According to Costa and his colleagues, they’re more likely to make the utilitarian choice.  Let’s hope the utilitarian choice is the “right” choice in these situations.


Costa, A., Foucart, A., Hayakawa, S., Aparici, M., Apesteguia, J., Heafner, J., & Keysar, B. (2014). Your morals depend on language, PLoS ONE, 9(4), e94842. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094842.

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