Saving El Gordo

(Credit: We Love Philosophy)

A few years ago, a Spanish psychologist and his team of researchers asked about 700 students to decide whether they would kill one person to save five. It was a version of the classic trolley dilemma: A small train is trundling toward five people on the tracks who will perish in the crash; you see this from your perch on a footbridge and realize you can save them by shoving one of your fellow pedestrians—a fat man—off the bridge, into the train’s path. Do you do it? Only 18 percent of the students said they would, when answering in their native tongue. But when presented with the scenario in a foreign language, one in which they were proficient, the proportion of pushers jumped to 44 per cent. (Not for this conversation, but has anyone ever tested whether responses change when it’s a skinny man you’d be sacrificing?)

The researchers proposed three reasons for the difference. Because processing the question in a foreign language is more difficult, perhaps the students were more tempted to choose a response randomly. But when presented with a less extreme scenario, where they could save the five potential victims by flipping a switch rather than personally pushing their neighbor in front of the train, the difference in responses shrank to one percentage point (81 percent would flip the switch in their native language, 80 percent in a foreign tongue). If the students were choosing randomly, you would have expected about half to push the man and about half to flip the switch.

Maybe, instead, it was an issue of culture rather than language. But the pattern held whether the researchers questioned native Spanish speakers in English or native English speakers in Spanish.

Ruling out those explanations supported the third theory: that people behave in a less emotional, more logical and utilitarian manner when operating in a foreign tongue. Albert Costa, the psychologist who led the study, puts this down to the context in which people learn languages—that is, as a child at home among family and friends, versus in school—as well as their proficiency, with further research showing the gap in responses shrinking as study participants’ foreign-language fluency rises.

Costa and others have already pointed out that this less emotional reasoning could be a business advantage: Here’s to corporations in search of heart-headed leaders looking across borders. As someone who spends a lot of her time among young scientists working hard to improve their English, I wonder what the impact might be on the world of research. The Munich University of Technology has (not uncontroversial) plans to hold all its master’s levels courses in English by 2020. This is seen by many as a headache for German professors and students alike, but there’s no denying English is the lingua franca in science and technology today, or that English-speaking programs will attract talent from abroad (students and staff) much more than German ones. Perhaps because these arguments are so sound, no one has yet felt the need to claim that working in a foreign language sharpens the scientific mind. But if we buy that, universities in the English-speaking world might also take note and consider forcing their students to try reasoning their way through problems in Spanish, Chinese, or even German.

Of course, science is not all logic, but I have a feeling creativity might also get a boost when we leave the familiar terrain of English. Anyone who has learned a second language knows the challenge of working around vocabulary you don’t know; surely this flexibility should transfer to other areas of the brain. Maybe that’s Professor Costa’s next project.

Meanwhile, here’s some art to accompany all this science: Akhil Sharma reading Tobias Wolff’s “The Night in Question,” which features a trolley dilemma or two of its own.

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