Picture this: you are standing on a footbridge that overlooks a runaway trolley that is about to hit five innocent people. You see a man standing near you and realize that you could stop the trolley by pushing him onto the tracks. Do you push one to save five?
Ethical crossroads: moral dilemmas and decision-making
Utilitarian principles, which suggest that ethical decisions are the ones that result in the greatest amount of good or happiness for the greatest number of people, are often seen as the rational approach. In the footbridge version of the trolley problem described above, many would claim that the most rational choice is to push the man, as it would result in more people being saved. However, the decision that will save the most lives entails engaging in a morally questionable act: that of taking action to push and kill the man.
The language factor in shaping human decisions:
When this moral dilemma is presented to people in their native language, only 18% of people would push the man onto the tracks. Remarkably, when the problem was presented in their non-native language, 44% would push the man! This effect was coined the “Foreign Language effect”. Researchers have also shown that this effect is present in other domains of decision-making. In our native language, we make decisions depending on whether a problem is framed positively (e.g.: “medicine A will save 200 out of 600 people”) or negatively (e.g.: “medicine B will kill 400 out of 600 people”). Strikingly, the foreign language effect has been shown to diminish the influence of such framing effects: In another language, our decision-making is less susceptible to the way a problem is phrased.
Influencing factors: the role of bilingual proficiency and presentation modality on the foreign language effect
Importantly, a study by Radboud University researcher Susanne Brouwer showed that there is no foreign language effect in highly proficient bilinguals. However, this was only true when they read the moral dilemmas, and not when they heard it, suggesting that the modality in which a dilemma is presented influences our decisions beyond our second language proficiency.
It would seem unlikely that the language in which dilemmas are presented influence our decisions to such a great extent. So why does it seem to do so? The exact reasons are unclear, but it might be because we often have less experience with emotional situations in a foreign language, learned in a classroom setting and not always used in our personal lives. Compared to the usually more emotionally loaded environment in which we use our native language, the more neutral context associated with a foreign language might help us make more controlled decisions by giving us more emotional distance from the language in which the information is presented.
Researchers continue to investigate the conditions under which this Foreign language effect appears. Although not fully understood yet, being aware of its existence can help us reflect on why we make certain decisions.