A trolley careens out of control. If you push the fat man in front of the trolley, you can save the lives of five people, including two children, but the fat man will die. What do you do?

The typical answers people give, oddly, depends on whether the question is asked in the native language or in a foreign tongue. The Economist reports, “A rather counter-intuitive one was reported in a paper published last month in PLOS ONE, a journal. In it, Albert Costa of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain, and his colleagues, found that the language in which the dilemma is posed can alter how people answer. Specifically, when people are asked the fat-man question in a foreign language, they are more likely to kill him for the others’ sake. Dr Costa and his colleagues interviewed 317 people, all of whom spoke two languages—mostly English plus one of Spanish, Korean or French. Half of each group were randomly assigned the dilemma in their native tongue. The other half answered the problem in their second language. When asked in their native language, only 20% of subjects said they would push the fat man. When asked in the foreign language, the proportion jumped to 33%.”

Psychologists speculate that when the question comes in a language that the respondent doesn’t know well, different reasoning processes kick in. Instead of an intuitive, instinct decision based on a reluctance to kill, the need to process the language makes use of slower reasoning processes. Under those conditions, utilitarian calculations come to the fore: “while fluent speakers can form sentences effortlessly, the merely competent must spend more brainpower, and reason much more carefully, when operating in their less-familiar tongue. And that kind of thinking helps to provide psychological and emotional distance.”

More on: Language, Ethics

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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