In Box

How Do You Say 'Let the Fat Man Die' in French?

How language influences morals.

If asked to kill one person in order to save many, you might have some questions (and that's putting it lightly): Is the person you'd be killing kind and just -- or an unapologetic criminal? What about the others for whom the person would be sacrificed?

What might not seem relevant to this difficult decision-making is the language used when you were asked to do the deed. But, it turns out, language might actually matter a great deal.

In a recent study, researchers at universities in Spain, Connecticut, and Chicago asked people to consider a well-known ethical test called the "fat man trolley dilemma": Would they shove one heavy person in front of a runaway, speeding trolley, knowing that his death could stop the car from hitting five other people in its path? The researchers presented the problem, on paper, to subjects in the United States, Spain, France, South Korea, and Israel. Based on random assignment, the subjects read the question in either their native tongue or a second language, and they were required to answer in the same language.

Across the board, the researchers found that when asked in a nonnative language, people were more willing to push the fat man: 18 percent of people asked in their mother tongue said they would push him, while 44 percent said the same when a second language was used.

Prior research has solidly established that speaking in a second language creates emotional distance from subject matter. Still, the researchers were stunned by the extent to which this distance seems to have come into play on an ethical question, says Boaz Keysar, one of the study's authors.

The findings have implications for judges, jury members, doctors, and others who may be faced with moral dilemmas every day in a second language; this is particularly true in countries where the ranks of immigrants are growing. Critically, the researchers caution that they are not suggesting people are making bad decisions when using second languages. Rather, they emphasize that it is important for decision-makers to understand how a potentially surprising factor may be influencing their thinking.

"You think that your morals are, to some extent, constant across the board," says Albert Costa, one of the paper's authors. "But [language] really fundamentally changes the way you feel about these acts."

Illustration by Pete Ryan for FP

In Box

We Don't Need No Education

Thought control in the classroom is real -- and it works.

It was the summer of 2012, and Hong Kong was in an uproar. The pro-Beijing government's attempts to put in place a so-called "patriotic education" curriculum -- one with lessons similar to those taught in mainland China -- were met with howls of protest across the city. The government claimed it was only trying to further a more thorough understanding of Chinese culture and history. Hong Kong, of course, operates under different laws that provide greater rights and freedoms than the mainland. And Hong Kongers, ever defensive of their way of life, took to the streets by the tens of thousands.

Teenagers gave impassioned speeches; students went on hunger strikes; parents cried that their children should not be brainwashed.

Did the protesters overreact? After all, the hubbub was just about textbooks -- not the outright denial of free speech or another right.

In fact, a new study indicates that those decrying "thought control" were right to worry: Changes to an educational curriculum can have a profound effect on how students think.

A group of economists from universities in the United States, Hong Kong, China, and Germany set out to measure how much a government can influence the thinking of its citizenry via education. They examined changes to the mainland Chinese high school curriculum that were rolled out between 2004 and 2010, with the explicit goal of turning potentially rebellious students into upstanding members of the Communist Party's harmonious society. A 2001 Education Ministry document explained that the curriculum sought to "form in students a correct worldview, a correct view on life, and a correct value system."

To find out whether the changes worked, the researchers conducted a survey of the political views of 2,000 students at Peking University, some of whom had studied under the new curriculum and some of whom had not. Noam Yuchtman, one of the paper's authors, said the team had doubts that the reforms had been effective. After all, citizens know that the Chinese government is inclined toward indoctrination, and the university's students are among the country's brightest.

Turns out, the new curriculum worked like a charm. The authors found that students who studied it were more likely to view China's system as democratic and more likely to trust government officials, and they were more suspicious of unrestrained, American-style capitalism. (The government's attempts to influence students' attitudes toward ethnic minorities were less successful, as were its efforts to convince students to prioritize the environment over economic growth.)

Yuchtman and his co-authors show that the stakes of education disputes -- whether they're waged over Chinese national values, evolution, or World War II history -- are high. The researchers warn against classroom content that is manipulated to benefit a country's elite, by glossing over its historical wrongdoings, for example.

In Hong Kong, the government eventually backed down. The "patriotic education" plans have been put on ice, and the rowdy protests have ceased. Hong Kong students won't have to worry about being another brick in the wall -- at least for now.

Illustration by Pete Ryan for FP