Language and its Effect on Decision Making


Now it’s time to think, well at least a little.

There is a runaway train barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The train is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the train will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You cannot cause the train to derail or stop. You have two options:

(1)   Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.

(2)   Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Now before you start getting too deep into your inner thoughts (whether they are brooding, lackadaisical, or as empty as a desert with only a single tumbleweed floating on by) hold on a second.

We have all heard these weighty moral questions at some point in time. Whether it’s the one above known as the Train Problem or the many others that can be asked they all make you decide which choice is the best, if there is one. Sometimes the questions change in order to make them harder like replacing the single person on the track with a loved one.

Makes it harder to answer doesn’t it?

But now lets say you speak two languages and are asked the same question but in both languages. Would you respond in a different way based off of the language which you are asked?

Our days and lives are filled with decisions. Some are more substantial than others requiring more thought while other decisions are simple and require no thought at all. When we are making decisions that require more thought because of the gravity of the choice we turn to two major factors: intuitive processes and rational processes. Intuitive processes are spontaneous and emotionally based while rational processes are based off of conscious thought of potential outcomes.

So how does language play into this if it plays in it all?

When someone has to make a decision in their own language they can make a more immediate decision and can incorporate both aspects of decision making more evenly into their choice. But when someone is making a decision in their second or third language they have to translate the question in their mind in order to formulate a response. The more time spent processing the question the more the rational part of the decision making process can take hold and shape the response. Therefore if you are asked in your foreign tongue you are going to be more rational in your response then you would be when answering in your native language.

Not only are you going to be more rational if you are asked in your foreign tongue you are going to be more utilitarian (the ends justify the means) in your response as well. With the time your mind spends converting the thought into words and then into the the new language you are changing how you feel about the answer and will think with less emotion and will act in a more utilitarian way rather than deontologically (do what is right, though the world should perish). As you can tell both effects are created through similar means; more thought processing.

But there is an exception. Depending on the age at which you learn your second language will play into how much the rational and utilitarian part will play in the decision. When children learn languages at early ages they incorporate more of the language into their intuitive structure. This means that they will think more evenly with both sides of the decision making forces as both languages take on a similar role as a native language.

Now let’s go back to the Train Problem. You can tell quite easily that language can play a role in decision making. And while very few people have to deal with life and death decision making scenarios in their day to day life there are many other big choices that people have to make throughout their lives. Think about two people trying to make a business deal. If they are discussing in both of their native languages the result could end up being quite different then if one person was speaking in their second language and the other in their native tongue.

Thanks for reading this week’s blog post. If you have any comments or questions you can put them in the comment box below.

2 thoughts on “Language and its Effect on Decision Making

  1. This later effect should be “latter” effectively… However, you create a moral dilemma in any language noting that the word moral comes from the Greek meaning custom or manner which one may limit any human challenges if not tied to our humanity but only what is customary. You have found importantly that any translated word may offer a slight but important difference in meaning.

    • Thanks for the note! The change has been made.

      I think the idea of morality has separated from its original roots like many other words have over the years. It is more individual then societal now which means there is a stronger role for psychology in understanding ethics and choice.

      That is the hardest part for translators. It is not as easy as finding the corresponding word in another language that means the exact same thing. sometimes you have to translate a word from one language into another that has multiple words for that word and they all convey a different meaning.

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