Is Lying Less Wrong in a Foreign Language? Everyday Moral Reasoning and the Moral Foreign Language Effect in the Absence of Outcome Information

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Soter, Laura Katherine
moral foreign language effect; moral cognition; everyday moral reasoning; deontology; consequentialism; moral psychology
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When a person is presented with a scenario in which they can save five people from an oncoming train by pushing another person in front of it, people are more likely to say that they would push the person when asked in their second language than their native language (Costa, Foucart, Hayakawa, Aparici, Aspesteguia, Heafner, & Keysar, 2014). This Moral Foreign Language Effect (MFLE) is the robust finding (Geipel, Hadjichristidis, & Surian, 2015b; Geipel, Hadjichristidis, & Surian, 2015a; Geipel, Hadjichristidis, & Surian, 2016) that people tend to give more deontological moral judgments in their first language, and more consequentialist ones in their second. This is most often explained by differences in emotional valences between one's first and second languages. The present study gave 79 native English-speaking undergraduates at Carleton College a series of 15 scenarios containing actions that were morally good, bad, or neutral, all of which contained no information about the outcome of the situation, in either English or Spanish. The primary goal was to test for an MFLE in everyday scenarios which lacked outcome information. Consistent with past literature, participants who took the survey in English rated the bad scenarios as more morally wrong than those who took the survey in Spanish. It is suggested that the presence of an MFLE in the absence of information about outcomes undermines the argument that a second language promotes superior moral reasoning, and that by removing emotional cues we might be losing morally relevant information.