A fascinating article in last week's Economist suggests that we think about moral issues differently in our native language than we do in another language in which we are competent but not fluent.
For those of you unfamiliar with the philosophical game of "Trolleyology", here's the simple version: A runaway trolley is speeding down the track. From a bridge above, you can see that five people around the next bend, unsuspecting, will be struck and likely killed. You can run and pull the switch that will turn the trolley onto another track, where it will hit "only" one person. Do you pull the switch?
What if, instead of a switch, there were only one, very fat, man, standing next to you on the bridge. If you push him over, his mass would stop the trolley and save the five. Would you push the fat man?
Most people say, "Yes" to the first example, and "No" to the second. But why? In both cases, one person dies, involuntarily, so that five others may live (And there are endless variations to the problem).
The fascinating new study reported in the Economist is that "when people are asked the fat-man question in a foreign language, they are more likely to kill him for the others' sake." The study was conducted by Albert Costa of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain and his colleagues, and was published last month in the journal PLOS ONE.
When asked in their native language, only 20% of subjects said they would push the fat man. When asked in the foreign language, the proportion jumped to 33%.As the Economist reporter noted, "Morally speaking, this is a troubling result."
Why would the language used affect the decision made? Was the difference cultural (the problem was posed in English, Spanish, Korean, and French; half of the group were asked to consider the "fat man problem" in their native language, and half in the second language)? No, because the results were the same no matter what combination of languages was used. Note that those who considered the problem in a foreign language were competent in it, not fluent. And that's where the crucial difference seems to lie.
Several psychologists... think that the mind uses two separate cognitive systems -- one for quick, intuitive decisions and another that makes slower, more reasoned choices. These can conflict, which is what the trolley dilemma is designed to provoke: normal people have a moral aversion to killing (the intuitive system), but can nonetheless recognise that one death is, mathematically speaking, better than five (the reasoning system).
Since the subjects who considered the problem in a foreign language were not fully fluent, they had to think harder, more slowly, than did the native-speaker subjects. And were able therefore to achieve "psychological and emotional distance" -- which made it easier to sacrifice one for the good of the five.
The Economist is hopeful that, because more and more firms are making English their de facto language "even if it is not the native tongue of most of the workers", they may start making better, more rational decisions.
"More rational", of course, as long as you're not the fat man being tossed over the bridge.