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“The Foreign Language Effect” In Moral Decision-Making
The use of a foreign language is a common activity in the world among millions of people. This can be explained by sharing a romantic relationship with people who do not speak one’s native language, working in international companies, among others. People use a foreign language to share in emails, reports, or discussions. People make several decisions daily on different issues, and some involve moral dilemmas (Corey et al. pp. 1190). People also use a foreign language in verbal communications in day-to-day life. A foreign language directly influences judgment and decision-making in the domains of moral reasoning and risk perception (Al-Khatib & Charles, pp. 24). A foreign language is a language learned and used outside the environment where most speakers use it as a native language (Al-Khatib & Charles, pp. 24).
In an attempt to investigate whether and why the use of foreign language influences moral decision-making, two dilemmas were studied: the trolley and the footbridge dilemmas (Muda et al. pp 321). In the trolley dilemma, individuals could be asked to imagine a runaway trolley that is likely to kill five tied-up workers and cannot move. The person responding is in a position to access the train yard. The person has two options: first, do nothing and allow the trolley to kill five people, and second, to pull the lever and divert the trolley onto the side track and kill one person. The question will be if it is morally acceptable to pull the lever to divert the runaway trolley onto the sidetrack.
In the second dilemma, the footbridge problem, the scenario is similar. There is a runaway tram moving uncontrollably towards five people tied to the tracks, and there is nothing the individuals will do. The brakes are faulty, and without any intervention, the five people will die. However, the person is standing next to a huge stranger. The person has an opportunity to push off the footbridge this stranger, who happens to be large, to stop the tram from accessing the five people. This will kill the huge but innocent stranger but save five lives. The question here is whether it is morally right to push an innocent person to save lives.
The results from the two dilemmas used as study cases demonstrated that the footbridge dilemma is more sensitive to manipulating the number of people to be sacrificed than in the trolley dilemma (Muda et al. pp 321). The percentage of participants who are likely to sacrifice fewer lives to save more lives as morally right decreased when the number of lives to be sacrificed increased. The experiments demonstrate a relationship between the footbridge dilemma and the moral dilemma’s utilitarian aspect (Muda et al. pp 321). The causal structure is key in understanding moral reasoning (Białek et al., pp. 3). Intervention to the causal path in moral decision-making plays a key role in moral decision-making (Al-Khatib & Charles, pp. 24). This is based on the fact that moral reasoning changes the attentional weight on patient and agent.
The research indicated that people are more willing and ready to sacrifice one person to save more lives when the scenario is explained in a foreign language rather than in a native language (Muda et al. pp 321). The use of foreign language stunts emotional processing and attenuate deontological rules such as prohibiting killing (Hayakawa et al. pp 1388). The use of foreign language has many difficulties and can thus slow down and increase deliberation and amplify utilitarian considerations of maximizing welfare (Białek et al. pp. 13). When individuals are presented with false statements in both native and foreign languages (Al-Khatib & Charles, pp. 24), they show greater skin-conductance response with moral content than assertions with neutral or no content (Corey et al. pp. 1190).
Theories of decision-making advocate for dual-process models, which structure decision-making due to psychological processes (Białek et al. pp. 7). The two types of psychological processes are unconscious, parallel, automatic, and intuitive, while the other is controlled, slow, conscious, and serial. Intuition impacts judgment and decision-making through norms and gut-feeling (Čavar et al. pp. 18). Therefore, response to a moral question for either emotional heart thinking prompts (deontological response) or head thinking privilege (consequentialists response). Foreign language attenuates feelings, emotions, and norms (Hayakawa et al. pp 1388). foreign language promotes consequentialists responses. This is achieved by reducing access to important and relevant moral and sociocultural norms (Corey et al. pp. 1190). The use of a foreign language in a social context widens emotional distance.
Making moral judgment is a key aspect of social competence among human beings (Čavar et al. pp. 23). The use of taboo and swear words and emotional sentences is more emotional when used in a native language than in a foreign language (Hayakawa et al. pp 1389). Understanding the relationship between foreign language and moral decision-making is based on the trolley and footbridge dilemmas. The effect of foreign language on moral decision-making is real and not due to misunderstanding. The amplification of ERP waves for inspirational words is another issue to be considered. ERP waves may not differ in amplitude when used in the foreign or native language, but they differ in onset. When using a foreign language, the onset of emotional words is delayed (Białek et al. pp. 3). This implies that emotional words are more automatically processed in the native language than in the foreign language (Hayakawa et al. pp 1393).
The foreign language effect is found and modulated by the total amount of emotion involved (Al-Khatib & Charles, pp. 24). This means more utilitarian decisions were made in a foreign language than in a native language on personal dilemmas. Foreign language effect is constrained to personal dilemmas and emotionality involved. There is a foreign language effect on impersonal dilemmas. A foreign language does not elicit more emotional responses than a native language (Białek et al. pp. 3). A foreign language elicits more controlled processes and reduces emotional responses (Hayakawa et al. pp 1396). This confirms claims of dual-process account that there is a work of interplay between the two processes.
There is tangible evidence on how using a foreign language influences the moral evaluation of a moral dilemma. Foreign language effect is constrained to both personal and impersonal dilemmas. First, foreign language influences moral judgment by reducing mental accessibility of social and moral rules (Čavar et al. pp. 21). Moral rules prohibit people from pushing people or even keeping a lost wallet. Foreign language has less condemnation on violation of social and moral norms (Corey et al. pp. 1190). foreign language has slightly light words on condemning socially and morally acts such as cheating in an exam and cutting in line when one is in a hurry. In a foreign language, social, cultural, and moral norms are less salient. People will easily use inappropriate swearwords, and the translation will be different.
Foreign languages reduce the activation of social and moral norms by reducing access to relevant autobiographical memories. Language carries social and cultural norms learned at a tender age, and memories are language-specific. Therefore, cultural teaching and morals are more accessible when a language used to retrieve the teaching is similar to the language used at encoding. Moral and social rules are learned socially, and more chunks of social and moral rules are prohibitions against specific actions (Corey et al. pp. 1190). A foreign language is more likely to evoke memories of social and moral teaching to a smaller extent than a native language. Despite the relationship with the native language, the use of a foreign language reduced electrodermal activities in response to childhood reprimands. This is because most childhood teachings are built on “No” and “Don’t do that.”
The presentation mode as either reading or listening has no importance for the foreign language effect to occur. People are likely to respond more utilitarianly to the reading than to listen. Auditory of a foreign language had more impact than reading visual information. This is based on prosody and stress to facilitate comprehension and decrease the use of cognitive resources. The understanding of natives of a foreign language took a long time, and on an occasion where the decision was required quickly, one may make a wrong decision. Proficient bilinguals show an auditory foreign language effect because auditory modality elicits greater arousal than visual modality in the native language (Białek et al. pp. 9).
In conclusion, the paper has presented a strong argument that using a foreign language influences the moral evaluation of complex moral dilemmas. The use of foreign language increases the rate of consequentialists’ responses in the footbridge dilemma, but not in the trolley dilemma. The paper also indicated that a reduction or increase in emotionality drives the decision. This analysis implies a societal implication, such as making international decisions by international bodies like United Nations and Economics European Community. The decisions are made in a foreign language, mostly in English. The use of foreign language reduces access to knowledge of social and cultural morals necessary in moral decision-making. Therefore, international decisions should be swayed towards a consequentialist choice.
Al-Khatib, Mai, and Charles R. Fletcher. “Autonomic arousal in a foreign language in the context of decision making.” Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of America 4.1 (2019): 24-1.
Białek, Michał, Mariola Paruzel-Czachura, and Bertram Gawronski. “Foreign language effects on moral dilemma judgments: An analysis using the CNI model.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 85 (2019): 103855.
Čavar, Franziska, and Agnieszka Ewa Tytus. “Moral judgment and foreign-language effect: when the foreign language becomes the second language.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 39.1 (2018): 17-28.
Corey, Joanna D., et al. “Our moral choices are foreign to us.” Journal of experimental psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 43.7 (2017): 1109.
Hayakawa, Sayuri, et al. “Thinking more or feeling less? Explaining the foreign-language effect on moral judgment.” Psychological science 28.10 (2017): 1387-1397.
Muda, Rafał, et al. “Reading dilemmas in a foreign language reduces both deontological and utilitarian response tendencies.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 44.2 (2018): 321.
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