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The hidden connection between morality and language

Are people are more likely to act less emotionally and more rationally when speaking their second language?
a black and white drawing of a man with a brain on his head.
"The gyri of the thinker's brain." Credit: Bill Sanderson / Wikimedia Commons; Ana Kova

Tragedy can strike us any time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make the best of it. When Frank’s dog was struck and killed by a car in front of his house, he grew curious what Fido might taste like. So he cooked him up and ate him for dinner. It was a harmless decision, but, nonetheless, some people would consider it immoral. Or take incest. A brother, who’s using a condom, and his sister, who’s on birth control, decide to have sex. They enjoy it but keep it a secret and don’t do it again. Is their action morally wrong? If they’re both consenting adults and not hurting anyone, can one legitimately criticize their moral judgment?

Janet Geipel of the University of Trento in Italy posed fictional scenarios like these to German-, Italian-, and English-speaking college students in each student’s native language and in a second language that they spoke almost fluently. What Geipel found in her 2015 study is that “the use of a foreign language, as opposed to a native language, elicited less harsh moral judgments.” She concluded that a distance is created between emotional and moral topics when speaking in a second language.

People are more likely to act less emotionally and more rationally when speaking their second language, according to Geipel. Nelson Mandela seemed to have understood this dynamic decades ago when he said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

The distinction is an important one: If moral decisions are contingent on the language in which they are posed then the decisions of people who must work in a foreign language on a daily basis—immigrants, international corporations, international institutions—would need to be reevaluated. Whether it’s Goldman Sachs in Paris or the United Nations in Burma, decisions made by people speaking their non-native languages appear to be less concerned with morality and more concerned with rationality and utilitarianism.

Moral decisions tend to be made using two thought processes—one subconscious, one conscious. The emotional content of a dilemma is first understood subconsciously. One reacts to a situation’s emotional content without realizing it. You hear about sibling incest and you get emotionally disgusted. You don’t reason through it; you just react. Then there is the conscious evaluation that takes rationality, effort, and cognitive control. You think about incest or eating dead dogs further and realize that no one is being hurt and that just because something is peculiar, doesn’t necessarily mean it is immoral. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman popularized this view of human psychology, referring to the two different modes of thought as “system 1” and “system 2,” respectively.

There are many situations where the two systems seem to affect how we think about morality. In 2014, Boaz Keysar and Albert Costa posed the “trolley dilemma”—where pushing one man onto train tracks can save five people from being killed, sacrificing one life to save five—to more than a thousand people in five different languages. They found that people reading the scenario in non-native languages were significantly more likely to push than man than those reading in their native languages: 33 percent versus 20 percent. The conclusion, Keysar and Costa reasoned, is that the cognitive load required to understand a scenario in a second language creates an emotional distance, and we process the dilemma consciously rather than subconsciously.

Speaking in non-native languages can also free people from self-imposed moral limits. In 1986, Michael Bond and Tat-ming Lai found that Chinese-English bilinguals were more open to discussing embarrassing topics, such as intimate sexual information, when chatting in their non-native language. And in 2010, Jean-Marc Dewaele found that multilinguals from the United Kingdom preferred swearing in their second language, claiming that it allowed them to escape from cultural and social restrictions.

In many ways, switching to a second language can be a very positive change. When judgments of immorality are based on some people subconsciously feeling weird or unsettled, then skewed policy tends to follow.

And yet, as the psychologist Nalini Ambady showed in her research, humans make quick judgments on the first available information, and it’s extremely difficult to get past those initial reactions. Our first perception tends to color all future perceptions. (This work formed some of the foundation for Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.)

Still, if morally ambiguous scenarios are approached in a second language, that can nudge us toward making decisions consciously and rationally. Speaking in a second language, therefore, may be one of the most moral things you can do.

This article originally appeared on Nautilus, a science and culture magazine for curious readers. Sign up for the Nautilus newsletter.


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