How Heartless Are You in Chinese?

Psychologists at the University of Chicago made some intriguing findings relating to how language learners make ethical decisions. The researchers posed a classic ethics dilemma to the non-native speakers: would you push a person to his death to save 5 others from dying?

[Locomotive 1151, Texas & Pacific Railway Company]

Studies from around the world suggest that using a foreign language makes people more utilitarian. Speaking a foreign language slows you down and requires that you concentrate to understand. Scientists have hypothesized that the result is a more deliberative frame of mind that makes the utilitarian benefit of saving five lives outweigh the aversion to pushing a man to his death.

Super interesting! (And fortunately most of us are not learning foreign languages to be placed in roles where we preside over innocent citizens’ lives.)

This immediately made me think of the classroom language teacher who might frequently do foreign language discussions on ethical issues. One could do this for years, thinking all of your students were heartless bastards and the world is doomed, without even realizing this effect was at play. Theoretically.

Anyway, check out the full article on the study.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Anonymous Says: August 28, 2017 at 11:07 am

    Saving 5 lives (at the expense of 1) is “heartless”?

    • No, but pushing an innocent person to their death is pretty heartless.

      • Anonymous Says: August 28, 2017 at 11:17 am

        In that situation, I would consider letting 5 people die to be the “heartless” option, but maybe we are just using the word differently.

      • The point of the article is that it’s normally somewhat hard to decide to kill someone (even to save 5 people), but it’s made easier in a foreigner language. (Is English, by chance, not your native tongue?)

        You’re arguing that the ends justifies the means, a stance which can be a pretty slippery slope to heartlessness. (If you’ll kill 1 person to save 5, how about 2 to save 5? 3 to save 5? 99 to save 100?)

  2. Anonymous Says: August 28, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    I’m familiar with the problem ( and I understand what the point of the article is.

    The trolley problem has been researched in various forms for a while, and there are people who argue for both sides. I guess I just took issue with calling one side “heartless bastards”, even if it was somewhat tongue in cheek. I would have been fine with a term such as “emotionless”, which lacks the connotation of being cruel. But this is a tough issue, and I don’t expect to change your mind.

    • Speaking of tongue-in-cheek, I liked this response I got on Twitter:

      “The person I pushed was also speaking a 2nd language, he would understand.” — @kwokyingcheng

  3. It’s important to keep in mind that hypotheticals like these always imply that the outcomes of actions are certain. In reality, it’s hard to imagine such a situation. Are you all on tiptoe on a ledge with a fire raging and no firefighters or people in site? What if one person started hanging off the ledge to save room? That aside, thanks for sharing John, that’s very cool research!

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