Morals depend on language

Ever since I left my home country, I am confronted with new languages and cultures. I have been also sometimes treated differently because of my accent, lack of knowledge of the local language, skin color. It makes me all very aware of the strength of stereotypes and prejudices. It also makes me think a lot about languages, mother tongues and nationalities.  On several occasions I have experienced that it is better to ask for a favor in somebody’s mother tongue instead of in English. Sometimes I wondered whether I am just making things up.

The article that is published last week in PLOS One ( adds, however, a whole new dimension to my thinking. In the experiment described in this article people are forced into an imaginary situation containing a moral dilemma. Namely, participants are asked to imagine that they stand on a footbridge above train tracks. There is a fat person, unknown to them, also on the bridge. Additionally, five people are standing on the tracks and they are unaware that a train is coming. The train will kill them, if the participant takes no action. An utilitarian solution to the problem would be to push the fat person in front of the coming train in order to save the remaining five (I am not making this up. This is considered one of the options in this task!). Interestingly, participants are more likely to sacrifice one man to save five when the instructions to the task are given in a language foreign to them.

I don’t know about you but I am going to look for a Swedish course…


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