Studies from around the world suggest that using a foreign language makes people more utilitarian. Speaking a foreign language slows you down and requires that you concentrate to understand. Scientists have hypothesized that the result is a more deliberative frame of mind that makes the utilitarian benefit of saving five lives outweigh the aversion to pushing a man to his death.
But Keysar’s own experience speaking a foreign language—English—gave him the sense that emotion was important. English just didn’t have the visceral resonance for him as his native Hebrew. It wasn’t as intimately connected to emotion, a feeling shared by many bilingual people and corroborated by numerous lab studies.
“Your native language is acquired from your family, from your friends, from television,” Hayakawa said. “It becomes infused with all these emotions.”
Foreign languages are often learned later in life in classrooms, and may not activate feelings, including aversive feelings, as strongly.
The problem is that either the “more utilitarian” or the “less emotional” process would produce the same behavior. To help figure out which was actually responsible, the psychologists worked with David Tannenbaum, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business at the time of the research and now an assistant professor at the University of Utah.
Tannenbaum is an expert at a technique called process dissociation, which allows researchers to tease out and measure the relative importance of different factors in a decision process. For the paper, the researchers did six separate studies with six different groups, including native speakers of English, German and Spanish. Each also spoke one of the other languages, so that all possible combinations were equally represented. Each person was randomly assigned to use either his or her native language or second language throughout the experiment.
Participants read an array of paired scenarios that varied systematically in key ways. For example, instead of killing a man to save five people from death, they might be asked if they would kill him to save five people from minor injuries. The taboo act of killing the man is the same, but the consequences vary.
“If you have enough of these paired scenarios, you can start gauging what are the factors that people are paying attention to,” Hayakawa said. “We found that people using a foreign language were not paying any more attention to the lives saved, but definitely were less averse to breaking these kinds of rules. So if you ask the classic question, ‘Is it the head or the heart?’ It seems that the foreign language gets to the heart.”
The researchers are next looking at why that is. Does using a foreign language blunt people’s mental visualization of the consequences of their actions, contributing to their increased willingness to make the sacrifice? And do they create less mental imagery because of differences in how foreign language use affects which memories come to mind?
The researchers are also starting to investigate whether their lab results apply in real-world situations where the stakes are high. A study Keysar’s team is initiating in Israel looks at whether the parties in a peace negotiation assess the same proposal differently if they see it in their own language or the language of their negotiating partner. And Keysar is interested in looking at whether language can be usefully considered in decisions made by doctors speaking a foreign language.
“You might be able to predict differences in medical decision-making depending on the language that you use,” he said. “In some cases you might prefer a stronger emotional engagement, in some you might not.”
Citation: “Thinking More or Feeling Less? Explaining the Foreign-Language Effect on Moral Judgment,” Sayuri Hayakawa, David Tannenbaum, Albert Costa, Joanna D. Corey and Boaz Keysar, Psychological Science, Aug. 14, 2017. DOI: 10.1177/0956797617720944
Funding: John Templeton Foundation, National Science Foundation, Spanish Government, Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, Catalan Government, European Research Council and University of Chicago.