How Different Languages Affect our Decision Making and Morals

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When we speak in a language other than our native tongue is our moral compass askew? And, if people do have different moraIs when they speak in other languages, what does it mean when it comes to doing business internationally?

Psychologists have focused on the question of how languages change our sense of right and wrong─ how ethics change depending on the language we are using when confronted with moral dilemmas. Recently Scientific American  compiled studies that found people do respond differently when considering these dilemmas when they use a foreign language versus their native tongue.

One study asked for people’s opinions on behaviors that are generally considered wrong, such as eating a dog that was already dead. People were far less judgmental of these behaviors when they read about them in a language other than their native language.

Another study found that when presented with a hypothetical scenario, people were less moral when they read about the scenario in a language that was not the language they learned as a child. For example, they were more likely to push one person in front of a train in order to save the lives of a group of people further down the track. Willingness to shove the sacrificial person in front of the train increased from fewer than 20% of respondents working in their native language to about 50% of those using a foreign one.

According to Scientific American, one possible reason behind these findings is due to how much harder we think when we use a foreign language. This apparently makes us more logical. Another is that we’re less emotional when we use languages we learned later in life. Scientific American says “our childhood languages vibrate with greater emotional intensity than do those learned in more academic settings,” hence this overwhelmingly colors our moral judgments made in our native language, something you just can’t achieve through a comparably less colorful foreign language learned out of necessity. The forces of languages we learn later in life just don’t hold the same punch.

So how does this impact something like global market research?  When deciding whether or not to translate stimuli for bilingual physicians or patients, keeping linguistic response variations in perspective is very important.  Top quality translations will help aid you in your quest to get the right answers−the core emotionally-charged moral answer to your research. Since our native language is where our moral compass lies, then, based on these studies, all research should be done in the native language of the respondent.

Ilona Knudson

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