Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Costa&Keysar

Lost in Translation?

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
– George Orwell, 1984

Ellie Kicked off the New Year with some great thoughts about the need to explore qualitative assessment of games, and I’m going to jump on the bandwagon with another methodology post. In fact, I’m going to inaugurate what I hope will become a regular series for the blog:

On Methods

The holiday season is behind us now, but if you celebrated Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, Festivus, or THE DAY OF THE TOILING MASSES OF POLI 340, chances are there were texts, songs, or other traditional accompaniments in multiple languages. I’ll use that as a tenuous hook to transition into the substance of today’s post: the issue of languages – and native speakers.

I do a lot of bilateral and trilateral Track-II work, and so my projects often involve participants who are speakers of several languages. Naturally, we always discuss whether to allow participants to conduct their intra-team deliberations in their native tongues, or request that they do so in English so all members of control can follow the whole progress of the simulation without interpretation. Any game designer or director who has worked in a multi-lingual setting has encountered this dilemma. I’ve found that if all your participants have working proficiency in a shared language, it is treated as a logistical and resource management issue: do you have the funding/space/time to allow for translation? Do you have in-house language capability in the game staff or control team? Will language issues slow down the rounds too much? Etc. If the answers to one or more of these questions is ‘no,’ then we usually ask everyone to work in the common language.

But it’s possible this approach does not go far enough to understanding the impact of language on the results of a game. Albert Costa, and Boaz Keysar, psychologists at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and University of Chicago, respectively, have both studied the differences in how people make moral decisions in native versus non-native languages. Recently, the two joined forces, along with a number of co-authors, on a study published this past April in Plosone. Subjects were asked to make decisions in classic morality problems, such as the trolley dilemma (Thomson J (1985) The trolley problem. Yale Law J 94: 1395–1415), with treatment groups working in their native language and in another langauge in which they were profficient.

The study found that, to a significant extent, subjects’ decisions differed when the problem was presented in their native language versus the other.

“We have shown that people’s moral judgments and decisions depend on the native-ness of the language in which a dilemma is presented, becoming more utilitarian in a foreign language. These results are important for models of moral decision making because they show that identical dilemmas may elicit different moral judgements depending on a seemingly irrelevant aspect such as the native-ness of the language. Most likely, a foreign language reduces emotional reactivity, promoting cost-benefit considerations, leading to an increase in utilitarian judgments.”

The experiment was well constructed – if you want all the details, read the paper, but I will say here that they controlled for things like cultural differences, degree of fluency, etc. And the findings are compelling. If, indeed, decision making becomes more utilitarian and abstract with a psychological distance created by language, it could have real meaning for those of us trying to analyze and interperet behavior. Whether traditional wargame, crisis response exercise, or policy planning simulation, these projects often involve complex and high-stakes decision making. The research focused on moral judgements, but the findings suggest that the removal of emotion and a greater degree of abstract rationalization evident in those speaking a non-native langauge could impact all manner of decision making.

The silver lining? As one would expect logically, the greater the subject’s fluency in the second langauge, the smaller the difference in decision making. So there’s a practical take-away for the game director: if you are working in a lingua franca, get your participants’ TOEFL scores before you start to interperet the decisions they made during the course of play…

Food for thought.

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