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Learning a second language has many benefits.

September 23, 2016

In addition to making a person more attractive, speaking another language may make for a more logical, utilitarian decision-maker.

An article in Scientific American this month highlights years of research that all point to one idea: We are more logical when we consider problems of ethics and morality in a second language.

Author Julie Sedivy says it’s the difference between “quick, gut-level ‘feeling,’” and “careful deliberation about the greatest good for the greatest number.”

One study, for example, presented volunteers with the moral dilemma: Would you kill one person to save five?

If the choice requires pushing a stranger in front of a trolley to save five other lives, people are very hesitant—unless the problem is presented in a foreign language. Respondents were 30 percent more likely to kill one person to save five than they would be had they made the decision in their first language.

And it’s not which language you speak natively that makes the difference. Whether you’re an English speaker considering moral conundrums in Spanish or a Parisian deliberating in Dutch, the more logical decisions are always made in the second language.

A new study in the journal Cognition further corroborates the findings: “Participants [placed] greater weight on outcomes and less weight on intentions in making moral judgments” when reading scenarios in a foreign language, observed Sedivy.

So what makes us more emotional and concerned with intentions in our original dialect? Research suggests it’s early childhood memories that bend our moral compass.

Our mother tongue is imbued with our earliest and strongest emotions and memories. With psychological distance from those deep-rooted feelings, we are able to more clearly consider the consequences of our decisions, and be our most rational selves.

Melanie Lieberman is the Associate Digital Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @melanietaryn.

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