Thinking in Foreign Tongue changes your Morality

TrollyTheists and Atheists alike are hypnotized to feel they are ONE person. In Theists, this reinforces their belief in a soul. In some Atheists, this one-person (one-self) illusion tricks them into seeing theists as being deluded buffoons, unlike themselves.

Morality is a topic both atheists and theists have strong opinions about. They both feel they have thought, read or prayed hard on the matters of morality and by using their soul or their singular, logical self, they have come to a good understanding of what is right and wrong (preferable and detestable).

However, studies have shown that our moral thinking is complicated by the fact that our brains have different, conflicting moral calculators. These calculators are triggered by different stimuli thus can lead to contrary decisions for the same person. The classic experiment revealing this principle is the two trolley car dilemma problems — if your don’t know about it, you should read on it.

This PLOS One study (n=317), published April 2014, also using the trolley dilemma experiment, continues to reveal the multi-self aspect of the human mind by showing that when using a foreign language, a person tends to make more utilitarian moral calculations (saving the group over the individual) but when using their own language, they are more willing to sacrifice more people for an individual. The theory is (and it is also my experience) that the foreign language does not trigger the same strong limbic (emotional) signals as the native language — depending on fluency in the language. The study also revealed difference in calculator weighings between cultures. Our moral thinking is not as free and self-made as we even begin to imagine.

If nothing else, read the Discussion section of the study linked above.

This is part of my series on how studying language can help explore religious thought — see my Linguistics section.

Take home messages:

  • We are not who our brain tries to tell us we are.
  • Knowing more than one language illustrates the mechanisms of our moral complexity



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

14 responses to “Thinking in Foreign Tongue changes your Morality

  1. Theists and Atheists alike are hypnotized to feel they are ONE person.

    This sounds a bit like a Buddhist saying. Don’t they reject the notion of self entirely claiming that we’re part of the Universe, one-ness or something?

    [S]ome Atheists [see] theists as being deluded buffoons, unlike themselves.

    Well, some of their beliefs are much absurd than mine, for sure. Also, their beliefs are increasing function of the amount of evidence against them (I repeat myself…)

    The two trolley car dilemma problem

    has a fundamental flaw: not enough data in order to decide. For example, I would pull the lever if I knew that the law wouldn’t be against me for having killed one person. (If I did nothing, I wouldn’t be prosecuted for a number of people dying because there is no law which says that one is responsible for something he didn’t cause.) Another piece of data missing is the identity of the people in danger. If, for instance, the group of people who were about to be hit by the train consisted of criminals or “criminals” (e.g., Tony Blair) or rascals (e.g., a university president from one of the universities I know of) then I would not pull the lever: “serves them right”, I’d think. (But if the person on the other side was Hitler, then I’d do it.) In the absence of any information whatsoever, and, given the ambiguity of the law, then I’d probably do nothing although, yes, rationally speaking, I should minimize the number of losses. But no law, as far as I am aware, would protect me from being a criminal myself. Nah, the question has to be revised!

  2. Thanx for reading, Takis:

    (1) Yeah, it does sound like a Buddhist saying. Not the “all-oneness” one of New Age Western Buddhism though.

    You’d have to read this post to see why not:

    (2) Right. But many atheists’ belief persist in spite of evidence. In most realms, we are not usually open to evidence against our beliefs — atheists included. We sometime choose realms (domains) to be more open to changing — but there are precious few.

    (3) Create the dilemma however you wish. Add all the caveats you feel needed, and it will still reveal that you have contradictory moral calculators in your brain. As I said, your brain tricks you into thinking it is something it is not. This is the primary delusion upon which all others are based.

  3. The answer then to the dilemma is that, no matter what, there is no clear-cut solution. It’s a moral paradox. I’m not surprised that there are moral paradoxes. After all, there are logical paradoxes as such whose solution is that there is no solution. The only rational approach then is to be aware that this is the case.

    And now a (far-fetched, probably naive) analogy: In a mathematical system, most statements are unprovable. However, most statements that a human being can think of are provable. And when we encounter something unprovable it’s big news. Likewise, perhaps, in real life, dilemmas of the sort you pointed out could exist in abundance. Yet one would hope that, most of the time, we don’t encounter them. However, we should have a criterion for deciding whether a moral problem has an acceptable answer or not. (Acceptable, I said, but I wonder what this means… Acceptable by whom?)

    It is this kind of “thoughts” (which I’ve seen in practice in my field) that make me have a hunch that there might be a corner of the Universe which might never be explainable by our limited mind, especially if we take the point of view that Logic is independent of human mind.

    (And, no, I don’t jump into conclusions that a super-human mind is responsible for everything we can’t explain or that there ought to be explanation or purpose for everything. I, simply, admit that there may be things beyond our reach. And yet it is exhilarating to demonstrate that a particular thing is, indeed, beyond our reach. Fascinating, I’d say.)

  4. I would not call it a paradox, in that there are not principles that contradict each other – no axioms in conflict. But then, I am an anti-Realist when it comes to meta-ethics. There are no acceptable criterion to deciding moral problems — only emphatic temporary agreements.

    Morality and Maths are not comparable — sadly.

  5. Also, Takis, the point of the post, as you see (I’m sure) is to point out that our “self” is not stable. At one moment we’ll make a judgement that our previous self would not understand or outright disagree with. We are many selves.

  6. No doubt. Even our cells are completely different from what they were 20 years ago.

  7. @Takis,
    And then: can you see that Takis does not make consistent ethical choices — that Takis does not have a coherent ethical map upon which his life is based? I imagine you agree.

  8. Nevertheless, Takis is willing to discuss and does not accept anything as “true” or “correct” because an authority (religious or secular) said so.

  9. Scott McGreal

    Thanks for sharing this Sabio, I hadn’t heard of this study, it was fascinating reading. I find it rather humbling to think that something as subtle as using another language could influence one’s moral decisions.
    I had to wonder what was up with the Hebrew language speakers being 65% more likely to make a utilitarian decision compared to when they used their native language. I was tempted to speculate about whether learning Hebrew has some sort of odd effect on people (kind of like the odd effect reading the Bible has on some). However, the authors pointed out that they had a fairly small sample of Hebrew speakers, so it could be just a statistical fluke. I’d be interested to know what sort of practical effect language use might have in day-to-day life, e.g. if people respond differently depending on what language one addresses them in.

  10. @ Scott McGreal,
    Thanks — you get my point.
    I would have been surprised it the language syntax itself influenced the moral calculators’ weighting. Instead, I’d imagine (as the authors did) that it was the culture. When I use non-IndoEuropean languages (Japanese, in my case), I do feel a shift in relational thinking, though and some difference in time thinking. That is a long conversation, though, and one I would not be skilled at.

    All to say, as you point out, “humble” is indeed my response to every piece of evidence I receive pointing at my delusion of “self”.

  11. Hi Sabio,

    It’s been a long time since I’ve visited Triangulations but I just ran into a great comment you made on an apparently aptly named blog called Speaking in Foolish Tongues about crackpot quantum physicist Amit Goswami and re-blogged it at New Worlds. Now I’ll get to the business of reading and perhaps commenting on this blog post, which of course looks incredibly interesting as usual.

  12. Great Joel. I await a substantial comment pertinent to my actual post.

  13. I’ve been imbibing a lot of information pertaining to different aspects of the problem you discuss in the post, so I’m sure I can be substantive. I’m not sure if I can be sufficiently coherent to add much of interest, but I’ll try.

    First think that pertains strongly is the idea of morality driven from kinship. Steven Pinker discusses this at length in How the Mind Works was which I highly recommend. Subconsciously, we’re strongly predisposed to help our kin to the degree that we share genetic inheritance. It’s directly associated with the urge to remain alive. We know we will die, but our life is not just us. It is to a large extent our genes. The more of the genetic code we share with those around us, the more we want them to survive and prosper as well. We also want our children to spread their genes, which may be where a lot of the psychology of aversion to homosexuality originates. The idea of shared language affecting morality may be a subconscious association with kinship.

    I hadn’t given much thought to how this intersects with the idea on “one self.” The idea of one self is a powerful delusion that seems related to the biological imperative to survive and pass on our genes to create future incarnations of similar beings that share a connection with our present beings. Stanislaus DeHaene, in a recent book Consciousness and the Brain discusses the nuts and bolts of consciousness as well as anyone I’ve encountered. He says that, from a reductionist viewpoint it is very clear there is no one self. Our consciousness is composed of a whole slew of neuronal bundles that can individually become sufficiently energized to create a conscious thought, but significantly, only one at a time. In concert with the processes simultaneously occurring in the unconscious, any one of these bundles can become momentarily “in charge” and the perception is that this particular bundle of neurons in the driver’s seat is “me”. Ten minutes later an entirely different bundle of neurons and “me” becomes subtly different. It’s not in our interest as a smoothly functioning entity to be strongly aware of these differences, so we smooth them out and think of ourselves as one self. Meditation and mindfulness practices can undermine the illusion and make us more aware of what is really going on. It can also cause us to be hit by a bus and fail to pass on our genes if we take it to far.

    I speak only English so it’s hard to subjectively know how a foreign language affects my thinking of self, but I am married to a person who speaks a different language from birth, and I think it helps me to empathize (get out of myself) and enlarge my perspective. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if speaking multiple languages would expand the circle of awareness to get beyond kin altruism and result in thinking more broadly about concepts of self and morality.

  14. @ Joel McKinnon,
    I’ve already read Pinker. Thanx for mentioning DeHaene — not read him, but have several other neuroscience books and articles that probably state the similar.

    You write similarly what I have written in my other posts on self. I agree, crossing cultures (either by sympathetic marriage, learning a foreign tongue fluently and/or immersions) can change a mind — or a least part of the many parts of our minds. 🙂

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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