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.

Monday, April 12, 2021

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 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 is in the Public Domain]

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 better behavior 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.


If, like me, you love birds, I have a book for you.

It's about a bird I'd never heard of, which makes it even cooler.  Turns out that Charles Darwin, on his epic voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, came across a species of predatory bird -- the Striated Caracara -- in the remote Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina.  They had some fascinating qualities; Darwin said they were "tame and inquisitive... quarrelsome and passionate," and so curious about the odd interlopers who'd showed up in their cold, windswept habitat that they kept stealing things from the ship and generally making fascinating nuisances of themselves.

In A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiberg, we find out not only about Darwin's observations of them, but observations by British naturalist William Henry Hudson, who brought some caracaras back with him to England.  His inquiries into the birds' behavior showed that they were capable of stupendous feats of problem solving, putting them up there with crows and parrots in contention for the title of World's Most Intelligent Bird.

This book is thoroughly entertaining, and in its pages we're brought through remote areas in South America that most of us will never get to visit.  Along the way we learn about some fascinating creatures that will make you reconsider ever using the epithet of "birdbrain" again.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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