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Link: Study finds that using a foreign language changes moral decisions

8 Post author: Vladimir_Golovin 30 April 2014 05:26AM

In the new study, two experiments using the well-known "trolley dilemma" tested the hypothesis that when faced with moral choices in a foreign language, people are more likely to respond with a utilitarian approach that is less emotional.

The researchers collected data from people in the U.S., Spain, Korea, France and Israel. Across all populations, more participants selected the utilitarian choice -- to save five by killing one -- when the dilemmas were presented in the foreign language than when they did the problem in their native tongue.

The article:

The publication:

Comments (17)

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 30 April 2014 06:19:08AM *  7 points [-]

This at first looks like a repost of the link in http://lesswrong.com/lw/bxn/learn_a_foreign_language_to_reduce_bias/ but it isn't. This is another study with differnt tests.

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 30 April 2014 07:48:16AM 6 points [-]


Should you sacrifice one man to save five? Whatever your answer, it should not depend on whether you were asked the question in your native language or a foreign tongue so long as you understood the problem. And yet here we report evidence that people using a foreign language make substantially more utilitarian decisions when faced with such moral dilemmas. We argue that this stems from the reduced emotional response elicited by the foreign language, consequently reducing the impact of intuitive emotional concerns. In general, we suggest that the increased psychological distance of using a foreign language induces utilitarianism. This shows that moral judgments can be heavily affected by an orthogonal property to moral principles, and importantly, one that is relevant to hundreds of millions of individuals on a daily basis.

Comment author: chaosmage 30 April 2014 08:42:41AM *  4 points [-]

Funny: Greater proficiency in the foreign language seems to reduce the effect. (figure 3 in the publication)

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 30 April 2014 01:37:30PM 6 points [-]

Makes sense. The more fluent you are the less "foreign" the language is to you.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 01 May 2014 10:25:03AM 0 points [-]

This fits in with the recent post about the need to first 'believe' something before rejecting it (can't find it). The better you get in a (foreign) language the less you consciously reflect on it's content and thus the less chance to reject it you get.

Comment author: shminux 30 April 2014 05:11:01PM 7 points [-]

Seems like a special case of using a non-transparent communication medium to activate System 2 by delaying and/or muting a System 1 response. Similarly discussing an awkward subject feels less embarrassing in a foreign language... until you master it. Have you noticed how people tend to use clinical/scientific terms to avoid connotations when trying to stay "rational"?

Probably a good general rationality technique. Maybe the UN should stop real-time interpreting services and make everyone learn Latin, Esperanto or Lojban?

What other non-transparent communication media are out there? By "non-transparent" I mean one that requires a conscious effort to imbue or tease out a meaning.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 30 April 2014 07:04:56PM *  2 points [-]

What other non-transparent communication media are out there? By "non-transparent" I mean one that requires a conscious effort to imbue or tease out a meaning.

Communicating via blurry text or using a hard-to-read font is a well known one.

Comment author: ChristianKl 30 April 2014 06:44:54PM 0 points [-]

I don't think that either Esperanto or Lojban is the perfect language. Expressing an idea in either of those languages usually takes 1.5 the amount of time as it does in English.

I think there room for a new constructed language that does things better.

Comment author: shminux 30 April 2014 08:08:57PM 1 point [-]

I don't think that either Esperanto or Lojban is the perfect language. Expressing an idea in either of those languages usually takes 1.5 the amount of time as it does in English.

In this case it would be a feature, not a bug.

Comment author: ChristianKl 01 May 2014 12:09:33AM 0 points [-]

If a unproductive language is what you want you could go for Toki Pona. It's even easier to teach than esperanto.

Comment author: shminux 01 May 2014 12:20:41AM 1 point [-]

The point would be the opposite: to make it hard but usable.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 May 2014 02:35:40AM *  1 point [-]

Latin it is! I'll bet some people won't enjoy the return of a world-spanning political authority communicating in a language no normal person knows though.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 02 May 2014 04:25:14AM *  2 points [-]

That's their problem.

Comment author: V_V 15 May 2014 07:26:21PM 0 points [-]

Although it sounds profound.

Comment author: christopherj 02 May 2014 01:25:58AM 1 point [-]

Some hypotheses: 1) Words in the foreign language are not tainted with morality. Using more neutral words in the problem description would have a similar effect.

2) The extra time taken to parse the foreign language description forces more time to think about the problem. Saying the problem slowly, or writing with a huge font, would have a similar effect.

3) The distraction of translating has an effect. Giving the subjects an additional task to do would have a similar effect.

Other studies showed an effect of language helping to discriminate between things like two different colors (aided if your language uses different words for them). That seemed like a different thing, perhaps an effect of categories and practice.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 02 May 2014 03:16:39PM 1 point [-]

Some other ways to tell which of these worlds we're living in ...

  1. Test a blunt description ("The trolley will hit the five people and kill them") versus a more verbose one, possibly with extraneous technical detail ("The vehicle, whose mass is N metric tons, will collide with the five individuals with a force of M newtons. Every similar collision on record has resulted in instant fatality.")

  2. Occupy the subjects' working memory by asking them to memorize a phone number or pattern of symbols before the question.

  3. Occupy the subjects' attention by asking them the question while bouncing a basketball, or balancing on one foot, or doing some other activity that requires continuous physical attention.

Comment author: ThisSpaceAvailable 06 May 2014 12:15:51AM 1 point [-]

Another thing to look into is how much giving the people names changes things. Or even back stories.

"Will you let Bob Naylor, a 48-year-old mechanic who is working overtime on the trolley track to save up to pay for his daughter's wedding, die, or will you spare him by swerving the trolley into..."