Ethical integrity means practicing consistent values from one situation to the next—at least, that's what you might strive for if you're someone who prides yourself on having a strong moral compass. But a new study suggests that being consistent with our morals is even more complicated than you may think it is. As Quartz reports, personal morality can be influenced by something as seemingly arbitrary as the language you're using.
Researchers from the University of Chicago published their findings in the journal Cognition. They set out to see if the imagery our brains produce changes depending on whether we're communicating in our native language or a foreign one, and whether or not these changes influence the moral decisions we make. They began by discussing sensory experiences with 350 native English speakers. They found that the pictures in the subjects' heads weren't as vivid when hearing scenes described in Spanish as they were when conversing in English.
Next, researchers met with 300 native Mandarin speakers to see how accurate their mental imagery was when speaking in a foreign language, in this case English. Volunteers were given a series of words (“pen,” “carrot,” and “mushroom,” for example) and asked which one didn't belong based on categories like shape or substance. To ace the test, subjects needed to pull up accurate pictures of the items in their minds. They were more likely to do so when speaking in Mandarin and more likely to make a mistake when using a secondary tongue.
So how does morality fit into this? Previous studies have shown that we're less likely to make utilitarian decisions (decisions that maximize life and happiness, even if others must die or suffer first) when speaking in our first language. The researchers thought this might be related to how language affects mental imagery.
For their final test, they asked 700 native German speakers who also spoke English to work out the moral problem of killing one person to save five lives. Subjects who visualized the sacrifice most vividly, mostly those speaking in German, were less likely to say they would kill someone to save five others. But when they spoke in English, and therefore couldn't see the scene as clearly, they were more likely to go the utilitarian route.
Morality is already a notoriously sticky subject, and these new findings don't make things any clearer. Just remember if you ever come across the trolley problem in real life, the language you're using could mean life or death.