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Friday, June 6, 2014

Gained in translation

When moral dilemmas are posed in a foreign language, people become more coolly utilitarian

The Economist
Originally posted May 17, 2014

Here is an excerpt:

Morally speaking, this is a troubling result. The language in which a dilemma is posed should make no difference to how it is answered. Linguists have wondered whether different languages encode different assumptions about morality, which might explain the result. But the effect existed for every combination of languages that the researchers looked at, so culture does not seem to explain things. Other studies in “trolleyology” have found that East Asians are less likely to make the coldly utilitarian calculation, and indeed none of the Korean subjects said they would push the fat man when asked in Korean. But 7.5% were prepared to when asked in English.

The explanation seems to lie in the difference between being merely competent in a foreign language and being fluent. The subjects in the experiment were not native bilinguals, but had, on average, begun the study of their foreign language at age 14. (The average participant was 21.) The participants typically rated their ability with their acquired tongue at around 3.0 on a five-point scale. Their language skills were, in other words, pretty good—but not great.

The entire article is here.