The interplay between language proficiency, modality and emotion in the Foreign-Language Effect on moral decision making

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

Susanne M. Brouwer, Radboud University
Previous research has shown that people make more rational decisions when faced with a moral dilemma in a foreign than in a native language (e.g. Costa et al., 2014). The aim of the current work is to test the limits of this so-called Foreign-Language Effect (FLE) by examining (1) whether it holds for highly proficient bilinguals of a closely related language pair, (2) whether it can be replicated in an auditory setting, and (3) to what extent it is modulated by the amount of emotion involved in the dilemmas.
In Study 1, 120 Dutch-English bilinguals were tested. Half of the participants read personal and impersonal moral dilemmas in Dutch or in English, whereas the other half listened to the same dilemmas. As personal dilemmas are up close and personal, it is argued that they are putatively more emotional. After reading or listening, participants’ task was to indicate whether the proposed action was appropriate or not. The results showed that the FLE was absent for the readers, but present for the listeners. In Study 1 it was, however, not possible to directly compare the reading and listening task, as there were also other differences between the two set-ups such as timing and ability to review the presentation.
In Study 2, the set-up was modified such that the reading task had the character of a self-paced reading task to resemble the listening task as closely as possible. 154 Dutch-English bilinguals were asked to read and listen to personal and impersonal moral dilemmas in Dutch or in English. Results showed that the FLE was present for personal dilemmas only. In addition, an effect of modality demonstrated that participants took overall more rational decisions during the listening than the reading task. These findings aid in understanding the robustness of the FLE in different settings.