Friday, July 04, 2014

Moral judgements depend on what language we’re speaking.

Costa et al. use the famous trolley problem to offer another example of the incredible power of the tribal or "us versus them" nature of our psychology. Studies have shown that this mentality (fundamental, for example, to the current chaos in the Middle East) emerges spontaneously in previously homogenous groups of young children as well as adults. In the trolley problem, the following scenario is presented to subjects: An approaching trolley is about to kill five people farther down the tracks. The only way to stop it is to push a large man off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. This will save the five people but kill the man. (It will not help if you jump; you are not large enough.) Do you push him? Costa et al. find that when people are presented with the trolley problem in a foreign language, they are more willing to sacrifice one person to save five than when they are presented with the dilemma in their native tongue. Their abstract:
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.

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