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How Bilinguals Deal with Moral Dilemmas

Your morals do not depend on your language but your answers might

Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

Morality is usually seen as our code of conduct, ethics, and ability to distinguish between good and proper behaviors, and actions that are intrinsically wrong, harmful and inappropriate. In the past few years, the interaction between morality and language has become one of the hottest areas in research on bilingualism (for discussion of earlier studies, see here). A recent outcome of this research is a sensational finding by Albert Costa and his coauthors, eagerly picked up by popular media: “Your morals depend on your language”. But what does this really mean?

In Experiment 1, Costa and his team presented 317 participants with a task where they had to imagine themselves standing on a footbridge overlooking a train track, and where an on-coming train was about to kill five people. The only way to save them was to push a heavy man off the footbridge in front of the train. The question was: Would they sacrifice one to save five? The answers to this dilemma were collected, in both the first and second language, from English-Spanish, English-French, Korean-English, and Spanish- or English-Hebrew bilinguals, all of whom had learned their second language (L2) later in life. The analysis revealed that across all populations more participants selected the utilitarian solution (kill one to save five) in the foreign language.

In Experiment 2, the researchers added a modified version of the same task, where one can save five people by switching the train–this time a trolley–to another track, where it would only kill one person. Responses were collected from Spanish-speaking students of English and English-speaking students of Spanish. The data showed that the wording of the task does make a difference. On the train task the participants were more likely to pick the utilitarian solution in their foreign language. In contrast, on the less emotional trolley task, the utilitarian solution was chosen equally frequently in both languages. These results led the authors to conclude that “people’s moral judgments and decisions depend on the nativeness of the language in which a dilemma is presented, becoming more utilitarian in a foreign language”, this due to reduced emotional arousal.

Quickly dubbed “the foreign language effect”, the finding has been replicated in other studies using the same or similar tasks. Thus, Heather Cipoletti and her team analyzed responses from 160 English-Spanish bilinguals to the train and trolley dilemmas and found that their participants also picked the utilitarian solution (push the person off the bridge) more frequently in the foreign language. In turn, Janet Geipel and her coauthors examined the judgments of German and Italian learners of English on scenarios involving social norm violations that ranged from white lies to consensual incest between brother and sister. They found that all of the scenarios were judged less harshly in the foreign language and explained these results through “reduced activation of social and moral norms”.

These findings have been presented by Albert Costa and his team, as well as the media, as “relevant to hundreds of millions of individuals on a daily basis”, and particularly important for multilingual organizations, such as the European Union, immigrants making decisions in the second language context, and jury members in multilingual trials. Following this line of thought, it is only a matter of time before a creative lawyer decides to use "the foreign language effect" as the new Twinkie defense: the defendant did not know that what they did was morally wrong because the foreign language environment reduced their sensitivity and access to social and moral norms. The question is whether the judges and juries would buy it and if they won’t, should we?

To begin with, most, if not all, of the studies to date have focused on foreign language learners. These participants display the clearest difference between affective processing in the first and second language, yet their histories of language learning and use differentiate them from immigrants and other bi-and multilinguals who live and work in more than one language and have affective ties to the L2. Furthermore, bilinguals rarely constrain themselves to a single language, moreover a second language. Personal decision-making usually relies on inner speech in the first language or the dominant language.

What the findings to date show is a framing effect, well-familiar in studies with bilinguals, where different languages trigger different answers, reactions and associations. It is less clear how easily we can extrapolate from responses given to hypotheticals in artificial tasks to decision-making in high stakes situations. We all know that decision-making in real life involves a multitude of contextual factors absent under laboratory conditions. As a consequence, there is only one way to understand whether language choice affects moral judgments in everyday life – and if so, how and when – and that is to study decision-making in everyday life.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo of a woman thinking from Wikimedia Commons.


Cipolletti, H., McFarlane, S., & C. Weisglass (2016) The moral foreign-language effect. Philosophical Psychology, 29 (1), 23-40.

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

Geipel, J., Hadjichristidis, C., & L. Surian (2015) How foreign language shapes moral judgment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 59, 8-17.

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