Professionalism/Albert Costa, Janet Geipel, Ethics, and Language

Albert Costa, and Janet Geipel -- both psychology researchers -- have conducted several significant researches on the effect of language on ethics.

Research and Studies


Alert Costa's paper, Your Morals Depend on Language, reported "evidence that people using a foreign language make substantially more utilitarian decisions when faced with such moral dilemmas." Costa conducted an experiment in which a variety of bilingual subjects were asked to choose to "sacrifice one to save five" in both their native and second language "learned later in life." [1] The "utilitarian solution" was chosen more frequently when comprehended in the second language across all sets of bilingual participants. [1]

The work of Giepel and Costa suggest that morals play out differently when the same objective scenario is interpreted across different languages. In one study, Geipel's researched the implications of "the foreign language effect on moral judgement." [2] In judging identical stories in native and foreign languages, study participants experienced inhibited morality when processing more emotional scenarios in a foreign language. [2] Geipel proposes that morals are processed differently due to "different processing routes" used when switching languages. [3] This is supported by the work of Caldwell-Harris, who claims that judgements of "what is right and what is wrong are not absolute" when it comes to processing the same situation or dilemma in different languages.[4] For one, sub-par fluency limits "engagement of the brain's emotional circuitry." [4] Moreover, the foreign language effect is influenced by the customs of the culture from which it originates. [4] This notion is due to the "experiences and certain emotions" that are "coded in the language" in which they were perceived.[5] Costa references the "brain-drain model", which halves cognitive responsibilities, with the first system governing unconscious thought processes and the second ruling over "controlled" and "effortful" contemplation. [5] The former is susceptible to bias, while the latter is better at monitoring and revising. [5] He proposes that the "time-course of information processing" is crucial to the interplay of cognitive resource expenditure for foreign language processing, and has a role in bias reduction. [5] Indeed, foreign language processing was found to be associated with an increased likelihood of calculated risks. [5]

Looking forward, these findings may substantiate further motivation to include foreign language study as an integral part of professional continuing education. Re-interpreting the same situation in a second language can act as a self-check on moral intuition and gut instincts.

Everyday Examples of the Foreign Lang. Effect


At Work


José Luis Peñarredonda is an author for BBC Worklife that worked in London for 4 months.[6] He is bilingual in Spanish and English, with Spanish as his primary language. During his time in London, he described working in his second language as “trying to eat soup with a fork”. He felt it was possible to communicate successfully with his colleagues, but it required more mental focus. This extra time to think is known as the Foreign Language Effect and is in line with the research by Costa and Geipel.  Peñarredonda identified four major benefits of working in your second language: emotional distance, negotiation skills, coworker’s perception and more succinct answers.

Working in your second language provides emotional distance to the work and constructive feedback you receive. Peñarredonda states that he interpreted harsh commentary on his work with more analytical steps forward and felt less offended by what his coworkers could have said. Peñarredonda identified that negotiating deals could be easier in your second language; by thinking through problems slower, he was less likely to read into how the offer was presented. This leads to having an advantage when getting what he wanted, especially if the negotiator underestimates how well you understand their prose. He felt that the extra time that he was allowed to take to respond allowed him to present offers more in his favor. Finally, by speaking in your second language, he felt he could be blunt. This enabled transparent communication that resolved the negotiations quicker with less time for his original goals to be obscured.



A 2021 study by Cornell and Northwestern University investigated how bilingual patients choose healthcare paths depending on which language the scenario was presented in.[7] The different choices varied in likelihood of adverse outcomes and participants decided their willingness to accept preventative treatment. This study relates to research by Costa and Geipel as scenarios in their second language were predicted to be judged more analytically. This was affirmed; participants judged both symptoms and potential side effects as less negative when presented in their secondary language. They were more sensitive to risks on both preventative care and medical conditions and evaluated them more similarly than those presented with scenarios in their primary language. This is an important finding as nearly 30% of physicians and 20% of patients in the US are multilingual and could be making decisions for themselves and others in their second language.

Financial Decisions


In 2013, Costa, Foucart and Arnon investigated whether the Foreign Language Effect was applicable to decisions relating to money.[8] This is important to develop their findings beyond life-and-death decisions which many people do not make daily. They sought to understand the psychological accounting of outcomes through a case study deciding to replace either money or goods. The example was presented as a woman going to a theater, but once she gets there she discovers she lost her way of getting in: either the money to buy tickets or tickets she had purchased earlier. Both scenarios have an equivalent monetary loss. Participants were asked to select which scenario the woman was more likely to buy new tickets, either by replacing money to buy tickets or rebuying tickets again. It was found that participants were less likely to purchase the tickets when the tickets were lost in their primary language, showing they had more emotional connection to the story.

This study shows how participants have less intuitive bias when scenarios are presented in a foreign language and make more rational decisions based on facts presented. This supports the findings of Costa and Geipel as participants’ decisions were less emotional in second languages. Emotionality is a key factor when reducing heuristic bias, or the bias from relation to previous personal experience and the mental shortcuts these create when processing a decision. This study is important to daily life as people make decisions about finances often, and if these are processed in a second language, a more rational outcome is possible.

Potential Implications of the Studies


The research of Albert Costa and Janet Geipel on ethics and language has significant real-life implications.

First, their work helps people further understanding of the role languages play in multilingual situations, such as international business or diplomacy. The advent of globalization since the late 20th century has strengthened the tie between nations, and increased the international trade. Since 1995, global trade volume has increases more than three folds, and nations have started collaborating on a wide range of issues including climate change, and economic instability. [9] And in such context of increasingly globalization, business people and diplomats often need to communicate in multiple foreign languages in their work. To help international organizations collaborate better, it is important for them to understand how language affects their decision-making, especially when the tasks involve complex ethical issues. Studies of Costa and Geipel help them gain insight of the effects, and could help the communicators make fewer mistakes. This is especially helpful when they deal with high-stake issues, and the outcome can impact a large number of people.

Secondly, Costa and Geipel's research helped provide insights to the psychology of millions of people who are bilingual, and may experience bilingualism's effect on moral judgement. The number of immigrants from other countries in the United States alone is over 40 millions [10]. And because nearly all of them use English as a second language, they could experience the effects discussed in Costa and Geipel's studies, such as the potential impact in moral judgements (e.g., making more utilitarian decisions) when they navigate complex ethical decisions at research, school, or workplaces settings.

Lastly, Geipel and Costa's work has impact on countries with diverse ethnicity populations speaking different languages. For example, people living in different regions of Egypt may use at lease three languages -- Arabic, Coptic, and English -- in their daily lives. Similarly, Canada adopts two languages, English and French, as its official language. Therefore, in these countries, residents may need to communicate with others using a second language, which means the effects detailed by Geipel and Costa could have a real impact in their decision making, and conflict resolution.


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  6. Peñarredonda, José Luis (May 28, 2018). "The huge benefits of working in your second language".
  7. Hayakawa, Sayuri; Pan, Yue; Marian, Viorica (Oct 1, 2021). "Considering Preventative Care in a Native vs. Non-native Language: A Foreign Language Effect". Brain Sciences. 11 (10): 1309. doi:10.3390/brainsci11101309. ISSN 2076-3425. PMC 8534006. PMID 34679374.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: PMC format (link)
  8. Costa, Albert; Foucart, Alice; Arnon, Inbal; Aparici, Melina; Apesteguia, Jose (Feb 1, 2014). ""Piensa" twice: On the foreign language effect in decision making". Cognition. 130 (2): 236–254. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2013.11.010. ISSN 0010-0277.
  9. "Beyond 20/20 WDS - Table view". Retrieved 2023-04-03.
  10. Batalova, Jeanne Batalova Nicole Ward and Jeanne (2023-03-13). "Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States". Retrieved 2023-04-14.