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Language choice may influence your decisions

Press Trust of India  |  Washington 

People are less afraid of losses, more willing to take risks and much less emotionally-connected when thinking in a foreign language, a new study has found.

Researchers also found that the moral choices you make could depend on whether you are using a foreign language or your native tongue.

Researchers from the University of and Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona found that people using a foreign language take a relatively utilitarian approach to moral dilemmas, making decisions based on assessments of what is best for the common good.

"This discovery has important consequences for our globalised world, as many individuals make moral judgments in both native and foreign languages," said Boaz Keysar, Professor of Psychology at UChicago.

"The real world implications could include an immigrant serving as a jury member in a trial, who may approach decision-making differently than a native-English speaker," Keysar said.

Leading author Albert Costa, UPF psychologist added that "deliberations at places like the United Nations, the European Union, large international corporations or investment firms can be better explained or made more predictable by this discovery."

The researchers proposed that the foreign language elicits a reduced emotional response. That provides a psychological distance from emotional concerns when making moral decisions.

In the study, two experiments using the well-known "trolley dilemma" tested the hypothesis that when faced with moral choices in a foreign language, people are more likely to respond with a utilitarian approach that is less emotional.

The first experiment asked study participants to imagine they are standing on a footbridge overlooking a train track when they see that an on-coming train is about to kill five people.

The only way to stop it is to push a heavy man off the footbridge in front of the train. That action will kill the man, but save the five people.

The researchers collected data from people in the US, Spain, Korea, France and Israel. Across all populations, more participants selected the utilitarian choice - to save five by killing one - when the dilemmas were presented in the foreign language than when they did the problem in their native tongue.

Keysar said decisions appear to be made differently when processed in a foreign language.

"People are less afraid of losses, more willing to take risks and much less emotionally-connected when thinking in a foreign language," Keysar added.

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

First Published: Tue, April 29 2014. 16:42 IST