What defines who we are? Our habits? Our aesthetic tastes? Our memories? If pressed, I would answer that if there is any part of me that sits at my core, that is an essential part of who I am, then surely it must be my moral center, my deep-seated sense of right and wrong.
And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I’m a slightly different person in each of my languages—more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I’m using at the time?
Psychologists who study moral judgments have become very interested in this question. Several recent studies have focused on how people think about ethics in a non-native language—as might take place, for example, among a group of delegates at the United Nations using a lingua franca to hash out a resolution. The findings suggest that when people are confronted with moral dilemmas, they do indeed respond differently when considering them in a foreign language than when using their native tongue.
In a 2014 paper led by Albert Costa, volunteers were presented with a moral dilemma known as the “trolley problem”: imagine that a runaway trolley is careening toward a group of five people standing on the tracks, unable to move. You are next to a switch that can shift the trolley to a different set of tracks, thereby sparing the five people, but resulting in the death of one who is standing on the side tracks. Do you pull the switch?
Most people agree that they would. But what if the only way to stop the trolley is by pushing a large stranger off a footbridge into its path? People tend to be very reluctant to say they would do this, even though in both scenarios, one person is sacrificed to save five. But Costa and his colleagues found that posing the dilemma in a language that volunteers had learned as a foreign tongue dramatically increased their stated willingness to shove the sacrificial person off the footbridge, from fewer than 20% of respondents working in their native language to about 50% of those using the foreign one. (Both native Spanish- and English-speakers were included, with English and Spanish as their respective foreign languages; the results were the same for both groups, showing that the effect was about using a foreign language, and not about whichparticular language—English or Spanish—was used.)
Using a very different experimental setup, Janet Geipel and her colleagues also found that using a foreign language shifted their participants’ moral verdicts. In their study, volunteers read descriptions of acts that appeared to harm no one, but that many people find morally reprehensible—for example, stories in which siblings enjoyed entirely consensual and safe sex, or someone cooked and ate his dog after it had been killed by a car. Those who read the stories in a foreign language (either English or Italian) judged these actions to be less wrong than those who read them in their native tongue.
Why does it matter whether we judge morality in our native language or a foreign one? According to one explanation, such judgments involve two separate and competing modes of thinking—one of these, a quick, gut-level “feeling,” and the other, careful deliberation about the greatest good for the greatest number. When we use a foreign language, we unconsciously sink into the more deliberate mode simply because the effort of operating in our non-native language cues our cognitive system to prepare for strenuous activity. This may seem paradoxical, but is in line with findings that reading math problems in a hard-to-read font makes people less likely to make careless mistakes (although these results have proven difficult to replicate).
An alternative explanation is that differences arise between native and foreign tongues because our childhood languages vibrate with greater emotional intensity than do those learned in more academic settings. As a result, moral judgments made in a foreign language are less laden with the emotional reactions that surface when we use a language learned in childhood.
There’s strong evidence that memory intertwines a language with the experiences and interactions through which that language was learned. For example, people who are bilingual are more likely to recall an experience if prompted in the language in which that event occurred. Our childhood languages, learned in the throes of passionate emotion—whose childhood, after all, is not streaked through with an abundance of love, rage, wonder, and punishment?—become infused with deep feeling. By comparison, languages acquired late in life, especially if they are learned through restrained interactions in the classroom or blandly delivered over computer screens and headphones, enter our minds bleached of the emotionality that is present for their native speakers.
Catherine Harris and her colleagues offer compelling evidence for the visceral responses that a native language can provoke. Using the skin’s electrical conductivity to measure emotional arousal (conductivity increases as adrenaline surges), they had native Turkish speakers who had learned English late in life listen to words and phrases in both languages; some of these were neutral (table) whereas others were taboo (shit) or conveyed reprimands (Shame on you!). Their participants’ skin responses revealed heightened arousal for taboo words compared to neutral ones, especially when these were spoken in their native Turkish. But the strongest difference between languages was evident with reprimands: the volunteers responded very mildly to the English phrases, but had powerful reactions to the Turkish ones, with some reporting that they “heard” these reprimands in the voices of close relatives. If language can serve as a container for potent memories of our earliest transgressions and punishments, then it is not surprising that such emotional associations might color moral judgments made in our native language.
The balance is tipped even further toward this explanation by a recent study published in the journal Cognition. This new research involved scenarios in which good intentions led to bad outcomes (someone gives a homeless person a new jacket, only to have the poor man beat up by others who believe he has stolen it) or good outcomes occurred despite dubious motives (a couple adopts a disabled child to receive money from the state). Reading these in a foreign language rather than a native language led participants to place greater weight on outcomes and less weight on intentions in making moral judgments. These results clash with the notion that using a foreign language makes people think more deeply, because other research has shown that careful reflection makes people think more about the intentions that underlie people’s actions rather than less.
But the results do mesh with the idea that when using a foreign language, muted emotional responses—less sympathy for those with noble intentions, less outrage for those with nefarious motives—diminished the impact of intentions. This explanation is bolstered by findings that patients with brain damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area that is involved in emotional responding, showed a similar pattern of responses, with outcomes privileged over intentions.
What then, is a multilingual person’s “true” moral self? Is it my moral memories, the reverberations of emotionally charged interactions that taught me what it means to be “good”? Or is it the reasoning I’m able to apply when free of such unconscious constraints? Or perhaps, this line of research simply illuminates what is true for all of us, regardless of how many languages we speak: that our moral compass is a combination of the earliest forces that have shaped us and the ways in which we escape them.
研究道德判斷的心理學家,對這個問題已經產生了興趣。最近幾項研究都聚焦於:人在非母語使用中,其倫理思維如何進行?譬如,聯合國裡一群代表們使用共通語(lingua franca)來進行決策時,會發生怎樣的事?從研究結果看起來,人們面對道德兩難時,使用外語確實發生了不同於母語的反應。
依據 Albert Costa 一篇 2014 年的研究報告,自願受試者面對「軌道電車難題」(trolley problem)這項道德困境:一輛行進中的電車正失控衝向鐵軌上的五個人,而你旁邊的開關可以將電車轉到另一軌道,拯救這五個人的命,只是結果會撞死另一條軌道的那個人。那麼,你會拉動開關嗎?
大多數的受試者都回答「會」。但如果阻擋電車的唯一辦法,是要把路橋上一名體型胖大的陌生人推下去以阻斷軌道呢?受試者說「會」這麼作時,便相當猶豫了,即使這兩個情境都是犧牲一人去救五個人。但 Costa 及同事們發現,若使用一種對受試者而言的外語來描述這場道德兩難,那麼宣稱「會」將胖子推落橋下的人就大幅增加,從使用母語時的低於 20%,升高到使用外語時的 50%。(在此測試中,包括了以西班牙語及英語為母語的受試者,而英語及西班牙語分別是這兩群人的外語。這兩群人的測試結果是一樣的,這表示答「會」的人數升高是跟使用外語有關,而無關乎他們使用「哪一種」語言,無論是英語、西班牙語。)
Janet Geipel 的團隊採用了很不一樣的一種測試方式,而他們也發現使用外語會改變受試者的道德判斷。他們的研究讓自願受試者閱讀幾種行為的描述,這些行為看似沒有傷害任何人,但許多人感到道德上無法接受。例如,兄弟姐妹之間享受了彼此同意而且安全的性愛;或者,有人養的狗狗被車撞死了,而他把牠煮來吃掉。但讀到以外語(英語或義大利語)講述這些故事的人,認為這些行為沒有那麼可惡,其判斷不同於閱讀母語陳述的人。
Catherine Harris 及同事們提出了很有說服力的證據,指出母語確實挑起了內心深處的反應。他們藉用皮膚的電流傳導來衡量情緒起伏(腎上腺素快速分泌時,傳導會增加),他們讓母語為土耳其語、後來學了英語的人士聆聽兩種語言的單字及片語,有些是中性的(table),有些是禁忌語(shit)或傳達了譴責(Shame on you)。參與受試者的皮膚反應顯示,中性詞彙比禁忌語更引發情緒反應,而當禁忌語由他們的土耳其母語講出來時更加明顯。但兩種語言的最強烈差別在於譴責語:自願受試者對於英語的反應非常平淡,但對於土耳其語的譴責則產生了強烈的反應,有些人還自述「聽到」了近親的聲音在發出這些譴責。如果語言容納了我們年幼時逾矩與受罰的回憶,那麼這些情感聯結會沾染到我們以母語進行的道德判斷,也並不令人訝異。
但是《認知》那篇研究報告的結果,確實結合著這種想法:使用外語的時候,靜默無聲的情緒反應——對於高貴的意圖比較無法同理,對於邪惡的動機比較缺乏憤怒感——會減低意圖的衝擊。這個解釋得到一些研究發現的支持:腦子的腹內側前額葉皮層(ventromedial prefrontal cortex,有關情緒反應的一個區域)受損的病患,產生了類似的反應模式,他們也把後果看得比意圖更重要。