Making difficult decisions in a foreign language could take emotion out of the scenario, researchers have found.
In a hypothetical situation where one could save the lives of five people by pushing another person in front of a train to their death, people facing this decision while communicating in a foreign language were more likely to sacrifice the bystander.
Rather than being concerned with maximizing the greater good, people using a foreign language were actually less averse to breaking taboos that can interfere with making utility-maximizing choices.
The study, conducted by University of Chicago researchers and Pompeu Fabra University researchers in Barcelona, proposes that using a foreign language gives people some emotional distance, and that allows them to make a more utilitarian decision.
'Until now, we and others have described how using a foreign language affects the way that we think,' said Dr Boaz Keysar, the UChicago psychology professor in whose lab the research was conducted.
'We always had explanations, but they were not tested directly.
'This is really the first paper that explains why, with evidence.'
The researchers conducted a series of experiments to explore whether the decision people make in the train dilemma is due to a reduction in the emotional aversion to breaking an ingrained taboo, or an increase in deliberation associated with a utilitarian sense of maximizing the greater good, or a combination of both.
'We discovered that people using a foreign language were not any more concerned with maximizing the greater good,' said lead author Sayuri Hayakawa, a UChicago doctoral student in psychology.
'But rather, were less averse to violating the taboos that can interfere with making utility-maximizing choices.'
'I thought it was very surprising,' Dr 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.'
According to the researchers, studies from around the world suggest that using a foreign language makes people more utilitarian.
Speaking a foreign language slows you down and requires that you concentrate to understand.
Researchers have hypothesized that the result is a more deliberative frame of mind that makes the utilitarian benefit of saving five lives outweigh the aversion to pushing someone to their death.
However, Dr Keysar's own experience of speaking a foreign language - English - gave him the sense that emotion was important.
For Dr Keysar, English doesn't have the same visceral resonance for him as his native Hebrew.
It's not as intimately connected to emotion, a feeling shared by many bilingual people and supported by numerous lab studies.
'Your native language is acquired from your family, from your friends, from television,' Hayakawa said.
'It becomes infused with all these emotions.'
In addition, foreign languages are often learned later in life in classrooms, and may not activate feelings, including aversive feelings, as strongly.
The difficulty the researchers had in conducting the study is that either the 'more utilitarian' or the 'less emotional' process would produce the same behavior.
To help figure out which was actually responsible, the researchers worked with Dr David Tannenbaum, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business at the time, and now a professor at the University of Utah.
Dr Tannenbaum is an expert at a technique called process dissociation, which allows researchers to tease out and measure the relative importance of different factors in a decision process.
For the study, the researchers conducted six separate experiments with six different groups, including native English, German and Spanish speakers.
Each of the 200 participants also spoke one of the other languages, so that all possible combinations were represented equally.
Each participant was randomly assigned to use either his or her native language or second language throughout the experiment.
The participants had to read an array of paired scenarios that varied: For example, instead of killing a man to save five people from death, they might be asked if they would kill him to save five people from minor injuries.
The taboo act of killing the man is the same, but the consequences vary.
'If you have enough of these paired scenarios, you can start gauging what are the factors that people are paying attention to,' Hayakawa said.
'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.
'So if you ask the classic question, "Is it the head or the heart?" It seems that the foreign language gets to the heart.'
For the next study, the researchers are looking into why this is the case.
It could be that foreign language blunts people's mental visualization of the consequences of their actions, contributing to their increased willingness to make the sacrifice.
Do they also create less mental imagery because of differences in how foreign language use affects which memories come to mind?
The researchers are also starting to investigate whether their lab results apply in real-world situations where the stakes are high: For example, a study that Dr Keysar's team is conducting in Israel looks at whether the parties in a peace negotiation assess the same proposal differently if they see it in their own language versus the the language of their negotiating partner.
Dr Keysar is also interested in looking at whether language can be usefully considered in decisions made by doctors speaking a foreign language.
'You might be able to predict differences in medical decision-making depending on the language that you use,' he said.
'In some cases you might prefer a stronger emotional engagement, in some you might not.'