The moral foreign language effect: a behavioral investigation of potential mechanisms

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

Joanna D. Corey, Universitat de Barcelona
Thus far research on the foreign language effect (FLE) on moral judgment has produced contradictory results in terms of its robustness and potential causes. Increased psychological distance and reduced embodiment in a foreign language context would make moral norms less salient, which would contribute to the phenomena. The current work investigates the FLE in three behavioral studies involving written moral dilemmas and transgressions aiming to assess the effects of the following on the phenomenon: a) psychological distance, b) embodiment, and c) the content of the moral trade-off and the elicited measure.
The results of Study 1 corroborate that the FLE is present for both choices for oneself and judgments of the acceptability of another’s action in moral dilemmas. Furthermore, its magnitude is unaffected by psychological distance (self vs. other), which was also found in Study 3 using different content and measures. The results of Study 2 suggest that the FLE is absent for judgments of another’s action in moral dilemmas when the foreign language is embodied by daily use in the real world, making moral norms more salient. The results of Study 3 show that the FLE is absent for moral wrongness judgments in the context of transgressions.
Together the current findings suggest that the FLE may not be attributable to psychological distance, but may be attributable to a lack of embodiment typically found in a foreign language. However, this does not cause foreign language contexts to affect all moral judgments: the phenomenon is absent when asking about moral wrongness and the trade-offs are questionable. Foreign language contexts may decrease the importance of prohibitive moral norms specifically if violating them provides a significant welfare gain. Thus, it may be that foreign language contexts modulate what we judge as acceptable when facing unappealing options, but not what we judge as wrong.