How Language Impacts Your Moral Choices: An Interview with a Psycholinguist
Dr. Susanne Brouwer, Assistant Professor at Radboud University
To live ethically, our habits and intentions must align with a moral code. However, even when a person strongly believes in a certain moral rule, research shows that seemingly unrelated factors (such as the language in which a problem is communicated) can cause people to deviate significantly from their usual beliefs. In this article, we speak to an expert about the flexibility of our moral choices, and how studying language and communication provide crucial insights into human behaviour and decision-making.
“There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing on a footbridge that is going over the train tracks. You can push someone off the footbridge where you are standing to hit the carriage and the trolley will stop. This action will save the five people on the railway track, but it will kill the person you pushed. Do you think it is appropriate to save the five people by pushing the one person to their death?
When faced with a moral dilemma, such as the well-known ‘footbridge problem’, people might assume that their answer will be guided by a certain internal moral code. It might also feel intuitive to think that an individual’s choice would remain stable regardless of the language being used at the time. However, what we might be surprised to know is that research has shown that contextual factors, including how the dilemma and choices are communicated to us, actually have a significant bearing on the decision we end up making. Remarkably, studies have found that when asked whether they would kill one person to save five, people are more likely to answer positively when faced with the dilemma in a foreign compared to native language. People become more utilitarian in their decisions when faced with a moral choice in a foreign language, with their judgments generally favoring the greater good by maximizing benefits and minimizing costs across affected individuals. What is the scope of this ‘Foreign-Language Effect’, and what other linguistic and cognitive factors impact the important decisions we make every day?
These and more are the questions which drive Dr. Susanne Brouwer, an Assistant Professor in Psycholinguistics at the Centre for Language Studies at Radboud University in the Netherlands. She also holds the unique position of Statistical Consultant at the Faculty of Arts. Throughout her career, Brouwer has been intrigued by human behaviour and specifically devoted to examining processes underlying how people communicate and understand one another. With a background in both psychology and linguistics, Brouwer uses her expertise in a broad range of psychological methods (including eye-tracking techniques) to explore linguistic phenomena across diverse populations. Her research includes studying how people learn languages and comprehend speech in challenging (listening) environments (i.e. foreign accents, bilingualism, background noise, etc.), as well as how these important factors impact judgments and decision-making. The pursuit has taken her across the world where she has conducted research at world leading institutes in the Netherlands, Turkey and USA.
"Working with students is an important part of research in order to distribute knowledge and develop students’ skills."
Speaking about her passion for this work, Brouwer explains that she has always been interested in people, particularly through scientific research exploring the interconnectedness between human behaviour and language. For this reason, in addition to her master’s degrees in both Psychology and Linguistics respectively, Brouwer obtained a PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen. “During my PhD position I learnt how fascinating speech is, as it typically varies considerably across instantiations, speakers, and contexts. I learnt that challenges in speech communication can originate from three sources: the speaker (e.g. speaking with a foreign accent), the environment (e.g. the presence of background noise), and/or the listener (e.g. being bilingual). My primary research aim is to understand how these communicative settings influence both speech comprehension and moral decision-making”. Moreover, in her role as Assistant Professor, she also specifically expresses a great passion for teaching and engaging students in her research. “Working with students is an important part of research in order to distribute knowledge and develop students’ skills.” says Brouwer.
"Communication is a complex process, with language being one of several important contextual aspects which can modulate behaviour and impact decision-making"
When asked how people understand one another, Brouwer explains that communication is a complex process, with language being one of several important contextual aspects which can modulate behaviour and impact decision-making. In line with this understanding, she has recently conducted a number of studies specifically investigating the extent to which the moral decisions we make may be affected by the way in which a problem is presented to us. To do so, she runs controlled experiments, presenting individuals with moral conflicts (such as the footbridge problem) while altering factors such as whether they have to read or listen to the dilemma, or whether those listening hear it in their own or foreign language, by native or non-native speakers. Her findings provide fascinating insights into mechanisms that drive our choices.
One of these insights include the previously described ‘Foreign-Language Effect’ which she recently investigated with a group of over 150 highly proficient Dutch-English bilinguals. Brouwer asked the group to read and listen to moral problems varying in emotional level, and presented in either Dutch or English. It was found that more utilitarian decisions were made when reading or listening to the dilemmas in their foreign versus native language. Interestingly, the method in which the choice was presented also made a difference with more rational decisions taken when participants listened, as opposed to read, the dilemmas.
A further example of her novel research includes a recent contribution in Brain Sciences looking at the impact of foreign accented speech, which she conducted together with fellow linguist, Alice Foucart at Nebrija University in Madrid. In their study, over 430 Spanish and Dutch participants were presented with variations of the footbridge problem. The native Spanish speakers listened to the dilemmas in Spanish recorded by native or foreign-accented (British-English or Cameroonian) speakers. Similarly, the Dutch speakers listened to these dilemmas in Dutch recorded in either a native, British-English, Turkish, or French accent.
Surprisingly, the researchers found a ‘Foreign-Accent Effect’, with participants becoming more rational and utilitarian in their choices when hearing the moral dilemma in a foreign accent compared to when it was heard without an accent. This research is the very first to suggest foreign accent as a factor that can impact and influence our moral decisions.
Brouwer’s research reveals that moral choices are context-dependent and may not be as stable as we may wish to think. The findings provide invaluable scientific contribution to better understanding decision-making processes across different groups, and specifically raise interesting questions about the effects of foreign language on behaviour and choice. As many individuals (for example, immigrants and bilinguals), and even multinational companies make moral judgments under different (linguistic) conditions, this line of inquiry has important implications and relevance for our increasingly globalized society. For this reason, Brouwer’s future plans include additional studies to strengthen her findings and further research efforts to gain a deeper insight into the role of communication in understanding people and their decisions.
Even though the footbridge problem is a fictitious one, responses to it tell us something about moral conflicts more generally and potentially shed light on how people make important decisions in their daily life. For example, politicians choosing whether to adopt new COVID-19 rules could potentially be influenced by whether recommendations are presented in their own language or by a foreign-accented speaker. As the outcomes of these choices have significance for individuals and groups of people, research done by Brouwer is essential if we are to make progress in understanding decision-making across society.
To read the full studies referred to in this article, visit:
1. Brouwer, S. (2021). The interplay between emotion and modality in the Foreign-Language effect on moral decision making. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 24, 223–230. https://doi.org/10.1017/S136672892000022X
2. Foucart, A., & Brouwer, S. (2021). Is There a Foreign Accent Effect on Moral Judgment? Brain Sciences, 11(12), 1631. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11121631
To learn more about Susanne Brouwer and her research
at Radboud University, visit:
This article was written by Sarah Vahed (Program Manager, Radboud Center for Decision Science), and approved by dr. Susanne Brouwer (Assistant Professor, Radboud University)