Eyes looking to the sky
Eyes looking to the sky

Language implicitly plays a role after making a moral decision

Would you sacrifice one person to save five? In bilinguals, the answer depends on the language in which the question is asked. Psycholinguist Susanne Brouwer investigated what is called the Foreign Language Effect on moral decision-making by using an eye-tracking experiment.

You have probably heard of the footbridge dilemma: a train arrives at full speed. If the train goes down one path, five track workers are killed. You can save them by pushing a man off a bridge. The train will be stopped by your action and the man will be killed, but the five track workers will be saved. What would you do?

The trolley problem is a well-known thought experiment in philosophy, but dilemmas like this are also interesting from a linguistic point of view. Susanne Brouwer, a psycholinguist at the Centre for Language Studies, investigates the decision-making process in different languages.

Foreign Language Effect

"Previous research has shown that people make more utilitarian decisions when presented with a dilemma in a foreign language," explains Brouwer. A utilitarian decision means that people choose the option that will work out best for the greatest number of people: if one person is sacrificed in the trolley problem, five survive." In contrast, when faced with a dilemma in their native language, people are more inclined to make emotional decisions: it doesn't feel right to sacrifice someone. We call the difference between the decisions in the two languages the Foreign Language Effect."

Scientists have not yet decided why people in a foreign language are more likely to make utilitarian decisions. "It could be that people feel more emotional distance in the foreign language because learning that language is often also done in a situation that involves little emotion, for example, in classes at secondary schools. But it could also be because processing a question in a foreign language requires more effort," says Brouwer.

Looking away out of guilt

Unlike previous studies, Brouwer conducted an eye-tracking experiment to find out what happens at an implicit level when people make different moral decisions in their native language than in a foreign language. This technique can examine to the millisecond what people look at while making a moral decision. Participants listened to dilemmas while being shown pictures of the key figures in the dilemmas: those who were sacrificed and those who were saved, depending on the decision the participant made.

"The eye movements showed that after making a moral decision in their native language, people look more at those they saved, while when making a decision in the foreign language, they look more at the people they sacrificed," says Brouwer. "One possible explanation is that bilinguals feel more guilty and emotional in their native language and therefore look away from the one(s) they sacrificed. In a foreign language, on the other hand, they feel less guilty and emotional." Language thus implicitly plays a role after making a moral decision.

The article "The time course of moral decision making in bilinguals' native and foreign language" is now available in the journal Frontiers in Language Sciences.

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Innovation, Language