How language influences morals.
- By Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer
Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is assistant managing editor for online at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor's degree from U.C. Berkeley, and master's degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.
If asked to kill one person in order to save many, you might have some questions (and that’s putting it lightly): Is the person you’d be killing kind and just — or an unapologetic criminal? What about the others for whom the person would be sacrificed?
What might not seem relevant to this difficult decision-making is the language used when you were asked to do the deed. But, it turns out, language might actually matter a great deal.
In a recent study, researchers at universities in Spain, Connecticut, and Chicago asked people to consider a well-known ethical test called the "fat man trolley dilemma": Would they shove one heavy person in front of a runaway, speeding trolley, knowing that his death could stop the car from hitting five other people in its path? The researchers presented the problem, on paper, to subjects in the United States, Spain, France, South Korea, and Israel. Based on random assignment, the subjects read the question in either their native tongue or a second language, and they were required to answer in the same language.
Across the board, the researchers found that when asked in a nonnative language, people were more willing to push the fat man: 18 percent of people asked in their mother tongue said they would push him, while 44 percent said the same when a second language was used.
Prior research has solidly established that speaking in a second language creates emotional distance from subject matter. Still, the researchers were stunned by the extent to which this distance seems to have come into play on an ethical question, says Boaz Keysar, one of the study’s authors.
The findings have implications for judges, jury members, doctors, and others who may be faced with moral dilemmas every day in a second language; this is particularly true in countries where the ranks of immigrants are growing. Critically, the researchers caution that they are not suggesting people are making bad decisions when using second languages. Rather, they emphasize that it is important for decision-makers to understand how a potentially surprising factor may be influencing their thinking.
"You think that your morals are, to some extent, constant across the board," says Albert Costa, one of the paper’s authors. "But [language] really fundamentally changes the way you feel about these acts."
Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is assistant managing editor for online at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor's degree from U.C. Berkeley, and master's degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.| In Box |
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C.| The Cable |