The effect of language and cultural context on decision making and personality inventories

Thematic Section: Morals and social norms in multilingual performance: Looking beyond the foreign language effect

language choice, foreign language effect, social norms, moral decision-making

Alexandra S. Dylman, Stockholm University
In recent years, the foreign language effect has been extensively studied for a range of psychological phenomena (including decision making, moral dilemmas, financial decisions etc.), generally showing that bilinguals make more rational decisions and more utilitarian choices in a native language context compared to in a second language context. Similarly, studies have found that bilinguals score differently when responding to personality measures in their different languages, and these findings have been interpreted as indicating that bilinguals change their personality as they switch between their two languages and/or cultures. More recently, however, some studies have found limitation to the foreign language effect, proposing several variables that seem to modulate the foreign language effect, such as immersion, linguistic similarity and cultural influence. In a subsequent study, we attempted to systematically distinguishing between the unique role of language and culture separately by asking bilingual participants to fill out a personality inventory. Specifically, native Swedish speakers were asked to imagine going for a job interview. The scenario was presented either in their native language (Swedish) or in their second language (English), and the job interview was either at a Swedish company or at an American company, in a 2 by 2 design. Following the scenario, the participants were asked to fill out the Big-5 personality inventory in the same language as the scenario they had just read. This allowed us to investigate the effect of language and culture separately. The results indicate that separate processes may be driving previously found differences on personality measures in bilinguals’ two languages, and that these processes affect the personality dimensions (as measured by the Big-5 personality inventory) differently. These results highlight the methodological importance of investigating the role of language vs. culture when examining the foreign language effect in future research.