You’ve probably heard of that classic philosophical conundrum known as the trolley problem: A trolley is speeding toward a group of five people stuck on the track. You happen to be next to a lever that could change the trolley’s direction, sending it onto a track where one person is standing; that one person would die, but five would be saved. Would you do it? What about if that one person isn’t actually standing on the track, but actively pushing them in front of the trolley will save the other five?
Your answer, as it turns out, may depend on the language in which you hear the question: In Scientific American this week, linguist and psychologist Julie Sedivy highlighted recent research illustrating how language can shape a person’s sense of morality.
For example, in one study published last year in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers presented native English and Spanish speakers with the trolley problem. Most of the study participants said they would flip the lever, but that number dropped when the researchers presented them with the twist: When the participants heard the question in their native language, less than a fifth said they’d be willing to push the lone person into harm’s way. But when they heard it in the language that wasn’t their first — Spanish for the native English speakers, and vice versa — around half said they’d be willing to do it.