ON June 20, 2003, employees of the Union Pacific Railroad faced a difficult decision as A RUNAWAY TRAIN headed toward downtown Los Angeles: Should they divert the train to a side track, knowing it would derail and hit homes in the less populated city of Commerce, Calif.? Did the moral imperative to minimize overall harm outweigh the moral imperative not to intentionally harm an innocent suburb?
They chose to divert the train, which injured 13 people, including three children who were sent to the hospital.
This extreme real-life situation resembles a philosophical thought experiment known as the trolley problem, which was designed to probe our moral commitments. It goes like this: Imagine you are standing on a footbridge over rail tracks. An approaching trolley is about to kill five people farther down the tracks. The only way to stop it is to push a large man off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. This will save the five people but kill the man. (It will not help if you jump; you are not large enough.) Do you push him?
No one approves of killing an innocent person. At the same time, sacrificing one person to save five has its own compelling moral logic. One of these two moral principles has to yield, and there is considerable debate about which one it should be.
What is uncontroversial is that your reaction to this dilemma should not depend on morally irrelevant aspects of the situation, like what color shirt the large man is wearing, or what the weather is, or whether you are being presented with the dilemma on a Tuesday rather than a Wednesday.
But we’ve got some surprising news. In a study recently published in the journal PloS One, our two research teams, working independently, discovered that when people are presented with the trolley problem in a foreign language, they are more willing to sacrifice one person to save five than when they are presented with the dilemma in their native tongue.
One research team, working in Barcelona, recruited native Spanish speakers studying English (and vice versa) and randomly assigned them to read this dilemma in either English or Spanish. In their native tongue, only 18 percent said they would push the man, but in a foreign language, almost half (44 percent) would do so. The other research team, working in Chicago, found similar results with languages as diverse as Korean, Hebrew, Japanese, English and Spanish. For more than 1,000 participants, moral choice was influenced by whether the language was native or foreign. In practice, our moral code might be much more pliable than we think.
Extreme moral dilemmas are supposed to touch the very core of our moral being. So why the inconsistency? The answer, we believe, is reminiscent of Nelson Mandela’s advice about negotiation: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” As psychology researchers such as Catherine Caldwell-Harris have shown, in general people react less strongly to emotional expressions in a foreign language.
An aversion to pushing the large man onto the tracks seems to engage a deeply emotional part of us, whereas privileging five lives over one appears to result from a less emotional, more utilitarian calculus. Accordingly, when our participants faced this dilemma in their native tongue, they reacted more emotionally and spared the man. Whereas a foreign language seemed to provide participants with an emotional distance that resulted in the less visceral choice to save the five people.
If this explanation is correct, then you would expect that a less emotionally vivid version of the same dilemma would minimize the difference between being presented with it in a foreign versus a native language. And this indeed is what we found. We conducted the same experiment using a dilemma almost identical to the footbridge — but with one crucial difference. In this version, you can save the five people by diverting the trolley to a track where the large man is, rather than by actively shoving him off the bridge.
We found that people reacted much less emotionally in this situation. Indeed, 80 percent of our participants opted to divert the trolley, their choice identical in both native and foreign languages.
Our research does not show which choice is the right one. But it does help us predict and explain some moral choices. Derailing the runaway train in California, for instance, was a choice we predict most people would make, both in their native and nonnative tongue.