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Using Foreign Language Might Affect Moral Decisions, Research Finds

Update Date: Apr 29, 2014 09:34 AM EDT

People using a foreign language take a relatively utilitarian approach to moral dilemmas and make decisions based on assessments of what's best for the common good, according to a new research. 

The research found that the pattern hold true even when the utilitarian choice would produce an emotionally difficult outcome like sacrificing one life so others could live. 

"This discovery has important consequences for our globalized world, as many individuals make moral judgments in both native and foreign languages," said Boaz Keysar, Professor of Psychology at UChicago, in a press release.

"The real world implications could include an immigrant serving as a jury member in a trial, who may approach decision-making differently than a native-English speaker." Leading author Albert Costa, UPF psychologist added in the press release that "deliberations at places like the United Nations, the European Union, large international corporations or investment firms can be better explained or made more predictable by this discovery."

The research noted that the foreign language elicited a reduced emotional response providing a psychological distance from emotional concerns when making moral decisions. 

"You learn your native language as a child and it is part of your family and your culture," said co-author Sayuri Hayakawa in the press release. "You probably learn foreign languages in less emotional settings like a classroom and it takes extra effort. The emotional content of the language is often lost in translation."

"What this study tells us is that moral judgments can be affected depending on whether the language in which it is presented is a native or foreign one," Costa added. "Awareness of this impact of languages on moral dilemmas is fundamental to making more informed choices."

The study is published online in PLOS ONE.

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