Explaining the Moral Foreign-Language Effect
Why do people make more utilitarian choices when using a foreign language?
Posted Jan 01, 2018
In 2014, University of Chicago psychologists Sayuri Hayakawa, Boaz Keysar, and their colleagues reported a fascinating finding: When confronted with the “footbridge” version of the well-known trolley problem, bilingual participants were much more likely to choose the utilitarian option—push the man off the bridge to save the lives of five other people—when they considered the problem in their second, non-native language.
The researchers offered a clever explanation for the finding: Pushing a man to his death is emotionally distasteful, even when five lives are saved. But an idea expressed in a foreign language has less emotional impact than the same idea expressed in one’s native language. So, the idea of sacrificing a life to save others is less repugnant when you think about it in a foreign tongue. All that makes it easier to be a rational, unemotional utilitarian—the greatest good for the greatest number.
Following the 2014 publication, the moral foreign-language effect (MFLE) was replicated several times by different teams of researchers using different bilingual populations, but it was still unclear exactly why using a foreign language affects moral judgments. Maybe the original account was the best explanation: Using a foreign language inhibits emotional processing, which makes it easier to choose the utilitarian option.
But researchers identified an equally plausible explanation: Using a foreign language requires more cognitive effort, which causes the “chooser” to slow down and think more deliberatively, more rationally. In the trolley problem, the utilitarian option—pushing the man off the bridge to save five lives—is the more rational option.
Three months ago, Hayakawa, Keysar, and their colleagues reported the results of six experiments involving more than 1,300 bilingual participants. The experiments were designed to identify which explanation for the MFLE—feeling less or thinking more—is the more plausible account.
Each participant considered and responded to 20 moral dilemmas similar to the trolley problem. Participants were randomly assigned to complete the task in either their native tongue or a second language in which they were proficient. The procedural details were complex, but the moral dilemmas were designed to measure the frequency of utility-based responses and the frequency of emotion-based responses. In this way, the researchers could determine if the MFLE is a product of stunted emotional processing or a product of slower, more rational deliberation.
Overall, the results of the six experiments strongly supported the “reduced emotional impact” account first proposed in 2014. Killing a person is a horrific idea, even when it saves the lives of five other people, but the idea feels less horrific when considered in a foreign language. In the words of the researchers, “people are more utilitarian when using a foreign language not because they think more, but because they feel less” (Hayakawa et al., 2017, p. 1396).
I expect the final chapter of this investigation has not been written yet. Other researchers may question the methods, data analyses, or conclusions of the psychologists at the University of Chicago. Nevertheless, their “reduced emotional impact” explanation makes good sense to me. When someone tells you, in a foreign language, “I love you” (or “I hate you,” for that matter), it just doesn’t pack the same emotional punch as when we hear it in our native tongue.
Hayakawa, S., Tannenbaum, D., Costa, A., Corey, J., & Keysar, B. (2017). Thinking more or feeling less? Explaining the foreign-language effect on moral judgment. Psychological Science, 28(10), 1387-1397.