Researchers from the University of Chicago and the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona presented [a] moral dilemma to 725 participants, most of whom were native speakers of Spanish with English as a foreign language, or native speakers of English with Spanish as a foreign language. They discovered that when participants were presented with the dilemma in their native tongue, they were far less likely to opt for pushing the fat man than those who read the description in their second language.Hmm. Interesting. The dilemma was this:
Read more here.
You’re on a railway bridge. Below you, a train is heading full speed towards five unsuspecting people working on the track. There is a fat man standing on the bridge with you. If you shoved him off, his impact would stop the train, and you would save the five workers. Would you push him?
I wish the methodology was clearer: were there 700 native-Spanish English speakers and 25 native-English speakers of Spanish? Maybe the fault is the Independent's. I need to see the original research.
But this has resonance in my own experience selling magazines in Spain. I found it much easier to be deceitful (not lying but painting a rosy picture of the future – I was selling subscriptions). My initial belief was that this was a feature of the language; this belief fitted in with vocabulary that related to my own position, back in England.
<autobiographical_note blush_factor="10">But maybe it's to do with speaking in foreign languages generally; maybe it works for any L1/L2 combination. But the experiment as described doesn't show that. Still less does it justify this possible application, suggested by one of the researchers:
I was a boy-friend to someone who thought I was a fiancé; the one word novio blurred the distinction. Did I love her? I doubt it; but I was happy to say Te quiero, because – past-master as I was in the field of casuistry [fruit of an RC education] – I did want her, and querer can mean 'want' (cf. Kant's 'murderer at the door' dilemma, and this [specifically 'All men are false']).
Boaz Keysar, Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago... suggests, for example, that immigrants may be better equipped to act as jury members, as they are likely to respond less emotionally to the evidence presented in the local language.
Who said anything about emotion? The experiment didn't suggest anything of the kind†. In the Professor's defence, he was responding to the sort of pressure that is increasingly, and lamentably, asking scientists 'How will this affect the bottom line?' Immigrants might make better jurors. That's one of the things that might be shown by a range of experiments in this area. And the relationship of language to morality is well worth investigating.
Update 2014.05.06.19:20 – Added this note:
† Oops. I was reading too carelessly, and the researchers did make what seems to me an unjustified link between emotions and second-language-use:
The authors of the study attribute this to the fact that foreign language appears to trigger a less emotional response, leaving people more able to make a pragmatic decision.Besides there's a difference between a link between second-language-use and making 'a pragmatic decision' (about a course of action), and between second-language-use and making a decision about who did what. And also I see no reason to assume that a foreign-language speaker will necessarily do what they say they would.
PS Also added a link to the Jew of Malta quote in the first line.
Update 2017.08.18.19:30 – Added this note:
I think this will confirm what I was saying more than three years ago (EurekAlert! schmurekAlert)¬ – but I‘ll have to read it properly.
And deleted old footer.