Language & Morality

552_europe_encourages_more_young_people_to_study_foreign_languagesAre moral decisions affected by language?  A new study published in PLOSONE maintains that they are.  The report indicates that, “People using a foreign language make substantially more utilitarian decisions when faced with such moral dilemmas.”  The result may be due to which part of the brain a respondent is using while deciding. Albert Costa, the lead author of the article hypothesizes, “This stems from the reduced emotional response elicited by the foreign language.”

Similarly, studies have demonstrated that one method of reducing an emotional response that interferes with logical reasoning (such as during testing situation) is to solve some simple math problems or silently recite multiplication tables.  That practice can re-route the thought process from the emotional part of the brain, (part of the primitive limbic system) to the logical pre-frontal cortex. (For more details, click on the Presentations tab on the home page; then view the Test Anxiety presentation.)

With respect to moral decisions, the findings of this recent study distinguish between intuitive judgments that appear  to be automatic and utilitarian decisions that favor the greater good. “Data from 725 participants are included in the analysis.” Using a foreign language (one in which a person may be proficient but not expert) can affect the outcomes.  Participants who responded to a moral dilemma using their native tongue made intuitive decisions that they arrived at quickly.  However, those who had to stop and translate the questions were relying more on the logical part of their brains, so they were inclined to provide more reasoned, utilitarian decisions.  The author states, “Moral judgments in a foreign language would be less affected by the emotional reactivity elicited by a dilemma. . . the rate of utilitarian decisions in a foreign language was increased by more than half compared to the native tongue.” Of course, the results are critical for global decision-making groups like the United Nations: “They show that identical dilemmas may elicit different moral judgments depending on a seemingly irrelevant aspect such as the nativeness of the language.”


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