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People Are Morally Different When Speaking a Second Language

What's the Latest?

When people were asked to throw a fat man off a bridge to save the lives of others (you know, ethics?), they were more likely to do so when the question was posed in their second language. "Morally speaking, this is a troubling result. The language in which a dilemma is posed should make no difference to how it is answered. Linguists have wondered whether different languages encode different assumptions about morality, which might explain the result. But the effect existed for every combination of languages that the researchers looked at, so culture does not seem to explain things."

What's the Big Idea?

The results of the survey correlate strongly with research done by Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics. Kahneman's research examined how people make decisions and found that two motors running at different speeds make the brain function. The fast motor governs our split-second emotional reactions while the slower governs more deliberative and logical thought. It seems that speaking in a second language helps to provide psychological and emotional distance, in much the same way that killing a fat man to save the lives of others does.

Read more at the Economist

Image credit: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock


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