Reading Dilemmas in a Foreign Language Reduces Both Deontological and Utilitarian Response Tendencies

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Abstract

Moral dilemmas entail deciding whether to cause harm to maximize overall outcomes, such as killing 1 person to save 5. Past work has demonstrated that people are more willing to accept causing such outcome-maximizing harm when they read dilemmas in a foreign language they speak rather than their native language. Presumably this effect is due to foreign dilemmas inducing reduced emotional impact, rather than increased cognitive processing, but previous work cannot distinguish between these possibilities because it treats them as diametric opposites. In the current work, we applied process dissociation to independently estimate harm-rejection and outcome-maximization response tendencies underlying dilemma responses. These findings reveal that reading dilemmas in a foreign language reduces both harm-rejection and outcome-maximization inclinations. This pattern clarifies past work by suggesting that reading dilemmas in a foreign language reduces concern for all potential victims—both the fewer to be harmed and the majority to be saved.

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