Language and Moral Decision Making

Posted by on Jun 18, 2017 in Blog Post, Neuromarketing

Imagine you are on a bridge, and see a runaway train shooting down the railway tracks towards five workers who are unable to hear or see the train coming.  A large man is sitting on the bridge, and if you push him off (killing him but stopping the train early) you can save the five people. Would you push him to save five people?

Now imagine the same scenario, with a runaway train about to hit five workers. But this time, you are at the side of the tracks, and by pulling a switch you can change the direction of the train. However, there is one worker on the other set of tracks that would end up being killed.  Would you change the train’s direction to save five people?

These are variations on the famous trolley problem, a thought experiment in the study of ethics proposed by Philippa Foot in 1967. Studies over the past 40 years have shown that while most people are unwilling to push the large man, they would be willing to pull the switch.

Irrational Morality

In both of these situations, the utilitarian calculations required to take action are the exact same: you save five by sacrificing one. But the context clearly matters. It is a lot harder for us to agree to directly push someone to their death, than it is to pull a switch that will cause them to die. To a robot, this would be a matter of irrationality. But to us, it is a result our brains having formed notions of ethics and morality over thousands of years of evolution.

This is an important revelation about human morality. Knowledge of this allows non-profit organizations to “personalize” their campaigns and aim to reduce the perceived distance between those providing and receiving aid.  For example, studies have shown that people are more likely to donate if they are shown a picture and bio of a single child with a name and story, rather than facts about numerous children suffering. In fact, even when people are informed about this bias, they still donate more when shown a single child.  However, we will leave this discussion for another post.

The Power of Language

Recently a potentially new revelation has been made surrounding the trolley problem and morality. Researchers have found that language effects our moral decision making and our willingness to push the large man to his death. In their paper “Your Morals Depend on Language,” [See Your Morals…] Albert Costa and Colleagues posed the large man question to a number of participants from around the world. Each participant spoke two languages, and learned the second language later in life (and did not grow up speaking it at home). Half of these participants were given the question in their native language, while the other half were given it in their secondary language. The results were then compared, and it was found that 20% of people reading their native language agreed to push the man, while 33% of those using a foreign language agreed to it. This result was on average the same across all the different cultures tested, meaning that it may be something that transcends culture, and applies to all of humanity.

The researchers were very thorough. They went on to test against bias, by seeing if the same results would occur for the problem with a switch, rather than a large man. In this situation, 81% of those reading the question in their native language flicked the switch, while 80% reading it in a foreign language flicked it. Therefore it is clear that language is only playing a role when it comes to moral dilemmas that require emotional thought. And that seeing a question in a secondary language is making people think in a more rational/utilitarian way.

Costa and colleagues argued that this may be due to a difference in emotional distance. When you think about a moral situation in your native tongue, it may be more relevant than when you think of it in a foreign language. They also argue that by reading the questions in a non-native language, you may be reducing your cognitive fluency, resulting in a more rational or deliberative method of processing the problem. Regardless of which reason is correct (and it may be both), it is clear that language matters, which is something you can use to your benefit.

Practical Rationality

Many countries around the world  have large populations of citizens who are bilingual (often with English as their non-native language). Here in Canada, the last national census in 2011 found that 17.5% (5.8 million) of the population spoke both English and French [See Lingusitic…]. In Europe, the famous Eurovision song contest, and the European Union administration, are run mostly in English. In many other countries around the world including China and Japan, English is becoming a necessary language for business practices.  Therefore there is a lot of potential for utilizing this knowledge about language.

Essentially, when you are designing a marketing strategy or advertisement for a target market that is mostly bilingual, (e.g. Quebec) you may be able to use a non-native language in order to elicit more rational responses.  For example, in a past Ontario election, Conservatives argued for a “million jobs plan” which involved cutting 100,000 government jobs. It sounded terrible and they subsequently lost. However, the Liberals (who opposed the plan) also needed to cut jobs in order to balance the budget. So the subject mimics the trolley problem in a way. Both parties ended up making similar decisions about cutting jobs (when looked at rationally), but marketed their solution in different ways. In this situation, if the Conservatives were able to target groups with a non-native language advertisement, they may have fared better in convincing people of their plan. Conversely, the Liberals would have fared best by communicating their ideas in a native language (as they appealed to emotion, and attacked the conservative plan).

These examples are hypothetical, and as this a fairly new breakthrough in understanding moral decision making, it may be some time before companies or political parties put the theories to the test in the real world. However, when combined with other research on language, it is clear that our brains work differently when thinking in a native language than a non-native one. In a world with a population that is increasingly speaking more than one language, this is a strategic tool that should not be forgotten.

Sources Cited / Further Research:

Your Morals Depend on Language– Albert Costa et al., –

Linguistic Characteristics of Canadians

Copyright A Light in the Rain Ltd. 2017