Would you kill one person to save the lives of five others? This is the question at the heart of the trolley dilemma, a thought experiment devised in 1967 by British philosopher Philippa Foot.

The dilemma consists of a series of hypothetical scenarios designed to test a person’s ethical prowess, including choosing to push someone in front of a train to potentially save the lives of five other people further down the track.

Interestingly, research reveals people are far more willing to sacrifice the bystander when considering the dilemma in a foreign language than when using their native tongue.

Now, a group of academics from the University of Chicago think they know why. The researchers suggest that using a foreign language reduces our ability to form images, because they are typically based on the memories we have of people, places, smells and sounds.

In other words, we tend to have more vivid experiences of people in our native language, and therefore find it easier to picture them.

Crystal clear?

To find evidence for this, the researchers, led by psychology professor Boaz Keysar, conducted a series of experiments. In the first, participants using a foreign language reported less vivid images of experiences than those using their native tongue.

The second showed that muted imagery reduced a person’s accuracy when judging the similarity of shapes of various objects, the researchers said.

The third experiment demonstrated that this reduction in mental imagery partly accounted for the effects of making different decisions when thinking in a foreign language.

According to the researchers, the findings suggest that our mental images change when using a foreign language, which (hypothetically) leads us to push the bystander in front of the train.

Learning another language

If speaking a foreign language slows you down and requires that you concentrate to understand things, perhaps this could be put into practice in real-world scenarios.

The obvious drawback is that not everybody can speak a second language. While it is difficult to calculate exactly how many people are bilingual, or indeed multilingual, estimates suggest around 43% of people can speak a second language.

In the European Union this figure is slightly higher, with just over half (54%) able to hold a conversation in another tongue, but in the United States, only about a quarter of people can.

This should not deter people from trying, however,

International language training institution Education First says that after-work classes, studying abroad, using apps, talking with your foreign partner, working overseas, and taking an intensive language course will all help people learn.

Education First adds that learning a language shouldn’t be about perfection. “Get messy in your learning, be happy to make mistakes and realize that you will feel silly at times.”