Moral Relativity In A Foreign Language – Can it affect you?

Well, recent research conducted by psychologists from the University of Chicago and Pompeu Fabra University of Barcelona shows it can.

How? What?! You have probably never doubted your own integrity to this extent before. Do we become different people when thinking about things in a foreign language? I don’t know about that, but this research shows pretty conclusively that people take a more utilitarian approach to moral dilemmas when confronted with them in a foreign language. According to the scientists, “that pattern holds even when the utilitarian choice would produce an emotionally difficult outcome, such as sacrificing one life so others could live.”

Why does this happen? Scientists posit that having to think and judge in a language other than your native one elicits a reduced emotional response – in other words, because this language does not come naturally, you tend to view everything that happens in it as a little “less real”, or perhaps it’s the high cognitive effort necessary to process information in a foreign language that makes you less emotionally involved.

“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.”

Co-author Sayuri Hayakawa, a UChicago doctoral student in psychology, said the way we learn the language is key. “You learn your native language as a child, and it is part of your family and your culture,” she said. “You probably learn foreign languages in less emotional settings like a classroom, and it takes extra effort. The emotional content of the language is often lost in translation.” (Source:

Language is key. Think about all those international settings (EU, UN, etc.) where decisions are made that affect us all on a daily basis. Makes you reflect on just how important a good translation and competent, self-aware intercultural communication really is, doesn’t it?…

Another interesting question would be to analyze this behavior in fully bilingual children. Fascinating stuff.


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