Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The language of morality

If we needed any more indication that our moral judgments aren't as solid as we'd like to think, take a look at some research by Janet Geipel and Constantinos Hadjichristidis of the University of Trento (Italy), working with Luca Surian of Leeds University (UK).

The study, entitled "How Foreign Language Shapes Moral Judgment," appeared in the Journal of Social Psychology.  What Geipel et al. did was to present multilingual individuals with situations which most people consider morally reprehensible, but where no one (not even an animal) was deliberately hurt -- such as two siblings engaging in consensual and safe sex, and a man cooking and eating his dog after it was struck by a car and killed.  These types of situations make the vast majority of us go "Ewwwww" -- but it's sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly why that is.

"It's just horrible," is the usual fallback answer.

So did the test subjects in the study find such behavior immoral or unethical?  The unsettling answer is: it depends on what language the situation was presented in.

Across the board, if the situation was presented in the subject's first language, the judgments regarding the situation were uniformly harsher and more negative.  Presented in languages learned later in life, the subjects were much more forgiving.

The researchers controlled for which languages were being spoken; they tested (for example) native speakers of Italian who had learned English, and native speakers of English who had learned Italian.  It didn't matter what the language was; what mattered was when you learned it.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The explanation they offer is that the effort of speaking a non-native language "ties up" the cognitive centers, making us focus more on the acts of speaking and understanding and less on the act of passing moral judgment.  I wonder, however, if it's more that we expect more in the way of obeying social mores from our own tribe -- we subconsciously expect people speaking other languages to act differently than we do, and therefore are more likely to give a pass to them if they break the rules that we consider proper behavior.

A related study by Catherine L. Harris, Ayşe Ayçiçeĝi, and Jean Berko Gleason appeared in Applied Psycholinguistics.  Entitled "Taboo Words and Reprimands Elicit a Greater Autonomic Reactivity in a First Language Than in a Second Language," the study showed that our emotional reaction (as measured by skin conductivity) to swear words and harsh judgments (such as "Shame on you!") is much stronger if we hear them in our native tongue.  Even if we're fluent in the second language, we just don't take its taboo expressions and reprimands as seriously.  (Which explains why my mother, whose first language was French, smacked me in the head when I was five years old and asked her -- on my uncle's prompting -- what "va t'faire foutre" meant.)

All of which, as both a linguistics geek and someone who is interested in ethics and morality, I find fascinating.  Our moral judgments aren't as rock-solid as we think they are, and how we communicate alters our brain, sometimes in completely subconscious ways.  Once again, the neurological underpinnings of our morality turns out to be strongly dependent on context -- which is simultaneously cool and a little disturbing.

1 comment:

  1. I may have truncated my reply, sorry:
    Delete the 'failed' version, if so ok
    Apologies in advance on the lengthy comment, but this subject is even closer to my heart

    than usual. (All of your inspiringly-cogent posts here rate a reaction, a temptation I've

    sadly learned to resist, since the lack of a give-and-take' reply (the factor which made

    that Late-Pliestocence now-extinct 'X' site such a joy) can put me into a week-long

    depression until I move on to other sadnesses. Of course your stellar 'post-a-day'

    production quota may rule out thanking random readers for their input, what do I know?
    Ok, background: having 'graduated' from my pre-school Pennsylvania-Dutch to standard

    English, and thence to Hebrew, which is now 95% of verbal life except for the net, I can

    perhaps add a datum-point to the subject. (My obsessive fascination with the vagaries of

    language is well-documented in 1500 posts elsewhere)
    And to the point: 'Abstract':, as they say: "The contributor postulates that the differing

    assessments of 'disgusting-ness' assigned to candidate incidents: (consensual sex by

    siblings with a recently-deceased road-kill 'man's best friend', for example) is most

    likely influenced by the comparative quantity of descriptive phrases and explitives-deleted

    assessments available in his/her native argot versus those in an acquired second tongue.
    (I am reminded of an instuctive 'Merkin-moment' anecdote, where I and my older son were

    guests at a party of 'don't get out much' PA locals. They were astonished after, having

    been whispered a few sentences by one of them, and my having conveyed the text to my son in

    Hebrew verbally, he was, incredibly, able to then recite the English version almost

    verbatim, to the suprise of the assembled horde. The point: "Are folks 'speaking in

    tongues' really, like, saying stuff?"
    At any rate, confronted with repulsive scenes here (regrettably common) I feel, although

    as fluent in Hebrew as I might have ever dreamed to be, none-the-less frustrated in

    expressing my revulsion in terms which I could be sure had the requsite 'bang'. Thus my

    contention that the gap noted in the study is likely explained by breadth of vocab.

    One could of course contend, by a competing theory, that a , say, Eastern NY state resident

    might say: "Snowed all day, what a horror!" while an Inuit describes, in his tongue, the 17

    types of precipitation which fell, to their joy or dismay. We in Israel have so many words

    for a 'fiasco' that it's often tempting to hide under the covers pretending to be searching

    for the most appropriate one.

    That's about it. Thanks again for being my first choice for thought-provoking content here

    on the web/ JS Tel Aviv