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.
In a recently published study in the journal Cognition, we examined the impact of using a foreign language on the moral evaluation of more commonplace scenarios, which included information about the outcomes of an action but also about the agent’s intention. A central characteristic of adult moral judgment is that intentions weigh more than outcomes. Intentions are also crucial in criminal law—to convict someone one should establish that the accused acted on a guilty mind. In our recent study we created scenarios in which the outcomes of an action conflicted with the agent’s intentions: either the outcomes were good and the intentions dubious (a fashion company donates money to charity possibly to increase its profit), or the outcomes were bad and the intentions good (a person gives a poor boy money to buy food, but the boy uses the money to buy drugs and dies of an overdose). With respect to native-language descriptions, we found that foreign language descriptions prompted relatively more outcome- than intent-based moral judgments.
On the surface, these findings resemble the previous ones with the footbridge dilemma. In both cases, foreign language promotes outcome-based moral evaluations. Furthermore, these results also afford an emotion-attenuation explanation. Perhaps foreign language influences moral evaluation by attenuating the (positive/negative) affect associated with (good/bad) intentions. However, these more recent results do not square with the explanation that foreign language prompts more deliberative thinking. Previous research on accidental harms (Buon et al., 2016) has shown that outcome-based moral judgments require less deliberative thinking than intent-based moral judgments.
Irrespective of what drives foreign language effects, I find them fascinating for several reasons. First, they are commonplace. We are living in increasingly multilingual societies where we frequently receive information in non-native languages. For example, I am a German native speaker but frequently read news in English. Might this be influencing my moral evaluations of the characters/acts in the reports? Second, foreign language effects shine new light into the language-shapes-thought debate. Previous studies typically compare speakers of different native languages, who also vary in multiple other ways (e.g., culture), which could account for any eventual differences. In the present studies, participants come from the same population and are randomly assigned to the language conditions. Third, foreign language effects have applied significance. For example, in several countries, non-native speakers can sit on a jury. Their verdicts might be harsher than those of native language speakers, as they might weigh less the intentions behind the defendant’s act.