“WOULD You Kill the Fat Man?” is the title of a recent book about a set of moral problems that
philosophers like to ponder, and psychologists to put to their experimental subjects. In the canonical form,
you are on a footbridge watching a trolley speeding down a track that will kill five unsuspecting people. You
can push a fat man over the bridge onto the tracks to save the five. (You cannot stop the trolley by jumping
yourself, only the fat man is heavy enough.) Would you do it?
Most people quail at the idea of shoving the man to his death. But alter the scenario a bit, and reactions
change. People are more likely to throw a switch that would divert the trolley on to another track where it
will kill only one person. The utilitarian calculation is identical—but the physical and emotional distance
from the killing makes throwing the switch much more popular than throwing the man.
There are other ways to nudge people‟s judgments, too. A rather counter-intuitive one was reported in a
paper published last month in PLOS ONE, a journal. In it, Albert Costa of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in
Spain, and his colleagues, found that the language in which the dilemma is posed can alter how people
answer. Specifically, when people are asked the fat-man question in a foreign language, they are more likely
to kill him for the others‟ sake.
Dr. Costa and his colleagues interviewed 317 people, all of whom spoke two languages—mostly
English plus one of Spanish, Korean or French. Half of each group were randomly assigned the dilemma in
their native tongue. The other half answered the problem in their second language. When asked in their
native language, only 20% of subjects said they would push the fat man. When asked in the foreign language,
the proportion jumped to 33%.
Morally speaking, this is a troubling result. The language in which a dilemma is posed should make no
difference to how it is answered. Linguists have wondered whether different languages encode different
assumptions about morality, which might explain the result. But the effect existed for every combination of
languages that the researchers looked at, so culture does not seem to explain things. Other studies in
“trolleyology” have found that East Asians are less likely to make the coldly utilitarian calculation, and
indeed none of the Korean subjects said they would push the fat man when asked in Korean. But 7.5% were
prepared to when asked in English.
The explanation seems to lie in the difference between being merely competent in a foreign language
and being fluent. The subjects in the experiment were not native bilinguals, but had, on average, begun the
study of their foreign language at age 14. (The average participant was 21.) The participants typically rated
their ability with their acquired tongue at around 3.0 on a five-point scale. Their language skills were, in
other words, pretty good—but not great.
Several psychologists, including Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in
2002 for his work on how people make decisions, think that the mind uses two separate cognitive
systems—one for quick, intuitive decisions and another that makes slower, more reasoned choices. These can
conflict, which is what the trolley dilemma is designed to provoke: normal people have a moral aversion to
killing (the intuitive system), but can nonetheless recognize that one death is, mathematically speaking,
better than five (the reasoning system). 第 9 頁，共 10 頁
This latest study fits with other research which suggests that speaking a foreign language boosts the
second system—provided, that is, you don‟t speak it as well as a native. Earlier work, by some of the same
scholars who performed this new study, found that people tend to fare better on tests of pure logic in a
foreign language—and particularly on questions with an obvious-but-wrong answer and a correct answer that
takes time to work out.
Regardless of the exact mental mechanism behind the team‟s findings, they could have big implications.
Boaz Keysar, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and one of the study‟s authors, talks of
investigating the impact on medical or legal decision-making. Meanwhile, globalization is boosting the
number of bilinguals. There are more non-native English speakers (500m, by one estimate) than native ones
(perhaps 340m). Big firms are making English their internal language, even if it is not the native tongue of
most of their workers. Meetings of international organizations like the United Nations or the European Union
are often conducted in languages that are not the preferred ones of most of those attending. Perhaps it is
reassuring to think they may be more coolly rational than meetings of monoglots—unless, that is, you are the
metaphorical fat man about to be pushed under a train.
【Group】36. What is the main idea of the passage?
(A) Learning a foreign language boosts a person‟s cognitive system for decision making.
(B) People become more rational when moral dilemmas are posed in a foreign language.
(C) Bilinguals perform better than monoglots in areas that require logical reasoning.
(D) The mental mechanism that controls a person‟s decision making still remains unknown.