Kill One Man to Save Five? Answers Depend on What Language This Moral Dilemma Is Posed In


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It's a timeworn and some might say tired rhetorical dilemma: Would you sacrifice one person's life to save five? But a new study published in the journal PLOS One provides a fresh twist on this morality test. It seems people's answers may depend on whether the question is posed in a native or a foreign language, with people making "substantially more utilitarian" decisions in the foreign language. 

"People often believe that moral judgments about 'right' and 'wrong' are the result of deep, thoughtful principles and should therefore be consistent and unaffected by irrelevant aspects of a moral dilemma," note the researchers, led by Albert Costa of Spain's University Pompeu Fabra.

Not so! Study participants—a mix of Americans, Koreans, French, and Israelis—were asked to imagine a situation where pushing a heavy man off a footbridge in front of a moving train could save five people about to get hit. The moral dilemma was posed to them in either their native language or a foreign language that they were proficient in but did not grow up speaking at home. Across all groups, more participants selected the utilitarian choice—to save five people by killing one—when using a foreign language than a native tongue.

Overall, only 18 percent of participants decided to push the man to his death when using their native tongue, compared to 44 percent when using a foreign language. 

In a second experiment, participants were given another version of the same dillemma—but this time, pulling a switch could divert the train from hitting five people to only hitting one, no pushing required. This time, participants preferred to divert the train in nearly equal numbers using native and foreign languages. 

The researchers speculate that this has to do with the more emotional nature of the first scenario. "Most likely, a foreign language reduces emotional reactivity, promoting cost-benefit considerations, leading to an increase in utilitarian judgments," they write. "This discovery has important consequences for our globalized world as many individuals make moral judgments in both native and foreign languages."