Imagine yourself in the following situation. You are standing on a footbridge next to a large man. Underneath the footbridge, a runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks and will soon kill 5 unsuspected workmen. But there is a way out. You could push the large man off the footbridge and onto the path of the runaway trolley. The person would die but the five workmen would be saved. Is it morally permissible to do so? Now consider what seems to be an insignificant variation. Instead of reading the story in your native language you read it in a non-native language that you understand well. Would this affect your moral evaluation?
Studies conducted by our research group and others suggest that it might. Overall, foreign language descriptions promoted higher moral permissibility ratings for this so-called “footbridge dilemma” than descriptions written in one’s native language. The most prominent explanation for this language effect is that the use of a foreign language attenuates (negative) emotions, facilitating colder, outcome-focused moral evaluations to surface. Another, possibly complementary explanation, is that foreign language directly prompts deliberative thinking, which in this context amounts to performing a cost-benefit analysis.