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Using a foreign language changes moral decisions

May 4, 2014

A new study from psychologists at the University of Chicago and Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona finds that people using a foreign language take a relatively utilitarian approach to moral dilemmas, making decisions based on assessments of what’s best for the common good. That pattern holds even when the utilitarian choice would produce an emotionally difficult outcome, such as sacrificing one life so others could live.

“This discovery has important consequences for our globalized world, as many individuals make moral judgments in both native and foreign languages,” says Boaz Keysar, Professor of Psychology at UChicago. “The real world implications could include an immigrant serving as a jury member in a trial, who may approach decision-making differently than a native-English speaker.” Leading author Albert Costa, UPF psychologist adds that “deliberations at places like the United Nations, the European Union, large international corporations or investment firms can be better explained or made more predictable by this discovery.”

Read full article at Science Daily.

2 comments

  1. I read the article — thanks for pointing it out, it’s quite interesting. Ideally there would be some follow-up studies that would use a wider variety of languages and cultures, both in terms of who the native speakers are and which foreign languages they speak. (For instance, the native speakers were all from fairly well developed/industrialized countries; 4 of the 5 countries were western).

    The other thing I’d be interested in knowing is both level of proficiency in the foreign language, and how it’s typically used. Were these people who have native-level fluency in the foreign language that the questions were posed in? Or merely a “can communicate about fairly basic issues in a non-nuanced way” level of proficiency? Do these people use the foreign languages primarily for business or communicating with people that they are not particularly close to, and don’t strongly identify with emotionally? Or do they have close friendships or even family relationships that are mediated through the foreign language?


  2. Excellent point. All relevant questions you should direct to the writer.



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