The language you use when making a decision makes a huge difference in the outcome. Psychologists from the University of Chicago (UOC) report that people communicating in a foreign language base their decision more on maximizing utility than on emotion or social expectations.

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Would you push a bystander in front of a train knowing he would die if it would save five others? Would you do it if you pondered the issue in say, German or French? Research shows that in the latter case, you probably would. UOC psychologists have previously found that people communicating in a foreign language when wrestling with such an issue are far more likely to sacrifice the bystander than those who use their native tongue. A new paper published by the same university builds on those findings to explain why language meddles with out decision-making process.

Speaking is believing


“Until now, we and others have described how using a foreign language affects the way that we think,” said Boaz Keysar, a UOC psychology professor and paper co-author.

“We always had explanations, but they were not tested directly. This is really the first paper that explains why, with evidence.”

Keysar and his team used the train dilemma to see if bilinguals speaking in a foreign tongue are nudged towards different decisions by a reduction in emotional response, an increase in their desire for maximizing ‘good’ in a utilitarian sense, or a combination of the two.

Their results suggested that people using a foreign language “were not any more concerned with maximizing the greater good” than their native-speaking fellows. But they did show less aversion to violating social taboos which “can interfere with making utility-maximizing choices,” the team details. Their theory is that when speaking in a foreign language people can put some emotional distance between them and the question — allowing them to take a more utilitarian approach to the issue.

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“I thought it was very surprising,” Keysar said. “My prediction was that we’d find that the difference is in how much they care about the common good. But it’s not that at all.”

The findings align well with previous research from the team, which shows people speaking in foreign language tend to be more logical and utility focused. It makes you slow down and concentrate on what you’re hearing and saying, all of which puts you in a more deliberative state of mind. As a side-effect, this makes saving five people seem much more important (in an utilitarian sense) than saving a single person.

Where does emotion fit in?

Keysar, however, had a hunch that emotion also plays a part in this equation. His native language is Hebrew, and for him, English simply doesn’t deliver the same deep-seated emotional resonance as Hebrew. His second language was thought in a classroom, not at home with family while growing up, so it didn’t have the same emotional connections built-in. Keysar’s theory was that this emotional coldness of non-native languages can then seep into our decision-making process.

“Your native language is acquired from your family, from your friends, from television,” said lead author Sayuri Hayakawa, a UOC doctoral student in psichology. “It becomes infused with all these emotions.”

But “less emotional” and “more utilitarian” are two states of mind that would produce the same observable behavior. To help comb the two apart, the team worked with University of Chicago Booth School of Business postdoctoral research fellow David Tannenbaum, an expert in process dissociation. Together, they performed six studies with six different groups, including native speakers of English, German, and Spanish. Each participant spoke at least one of the other two languages so that all combinations were equally represented. Participants were randomly tasked to use either their native language or second language throughout the experiment.


For the trial, each participant was asked to read paired scenarios that had key “systematic” differences. For example, instead of being asked whether they’d sacrifice a man to save five people from death, the team might ask if they’d kill him to protect five people from light injury. In other words, the taboo part (killing somebody) was still there, but the consequences varied. Pool enough of these scenarios together, and you start getting a picture of what people look to when making a choice.

“We found that people using a foreign language were not paying any more attention to the lives saved, but definitely were less averse to breaking these kinds of rules,” Hayakawa adds.

“So if you ask the classic question, ‘Is it the head or the heart?’ It seems that the foreign language gets to the heart.”

The next steps are to find out why this happens. It could be the case that speaking and thinking in a foreign language tones down how people imagine the consequences of their choice, making the sacrifice feel less dramatic than they would otherwise think. Or it could be that a different language affects which memories get recalled during the decision-making process, skewing people’s choices.

Another important next step is to see if these lab results translate to real-world situations in which the stakes are high and people are under a lot of pressure. For example, Keysar’s team will be looking at how parties in peace negotiations in Israel assess the same proposal differently based on which language it’s written in.

The full paper “Thinking More or Feeling Less? Explaining the Foreign-Language Effect on Moral Judgment” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.