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Hey qual! Native language may change moral decision-making

Article ID:
August 2014
Reyn Kinzey

Article Abstract

Reyn Kinzey discusses the importance of conducting qualitative research in an individual’s native language.

Editor's note: Reyn Kinzey is vice president of Kinzey and Day Market Research, Richmond, Va.

Would you sacrifice the life of one person if it would save five?

If you were raised with a traditional Christian sense of morality, you might not even entertain the notion. Remember: thou shalt not kill. However, if you came of age during the times of situational ethics, you might consider killing one to save five a good deal.

What might not cross your mind is that it might make a difference if the question is posed to you in English or in some other language.

But the language does seem to make a difference. That’s the conclusion of a recent New York Times article “Our Moral Tongue: Moral Judgments Depend on What Language We’re Speaking,”  by Boaz Keysar and Albert Costa.

The authors summarize research conducted in languages “as diverse as Korean, Hebrew, Japanese, English and Spanish.” Their conclusion and the research they summarize has clear and important implications for those of us who do qualitative research with participants who do not speak English as their first language.

Basically, participants were asked to consider a hypothetical situation where they could save five lives by taking one.

The moral decision may or may not be interesting to qualitative researchers, but this point should be made: only 18 percent of the participants said they would take the life when the situation was presented to them in their native language. However, when the same situation was presented in a second language (which they understood perfectly well) almost half of those participants said they would take the deal (44 percent).

This suggests that when we switch to a second language, even if we are perfectly comfortable with it, we may begin to think more pragmatically and less emotionally. The authors quote Nelson Mandela’s advice: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart.”

It seems likely that we internalize our basic morality, our beliefs and our deepest emotions with whatever language we are taught by our parents as children. That certainly is not to say that we always intellectually accept the beliefs and values of our parents, but it is probably the case that, for most of us, no other language can ever engage us as well emotionally as our first language, no matter how fluent we become in a second or third language. (Granted, there are certainly exceptions such as cases where people totally forget their native language).

Still, the implications for qualitative market research are clear: If we want to go beyond the pragmatic, if we want to get to the emotional core of participants’ beliefs, attitudes and values, we should be very wary of using a common language even when participants are fluent in that language.

In my case, when I am asked to conduct research with Latinos, I always insist that we bring in another moderator whose first language is Spanish and that we conduct those groups in Spanish. Again, there are always exceptions: we are increasingly seeing Latino participants who have been raised in the United States and are more comfortable speaking in English than in Spanish (we find some Latinos who speak no Spanish at all).

Even with these exceptions, the research summarized in this article suggests that I should continue to resist when clients suggest that we conduct research in English and not the subject’s native language just because it’s more pragmatic to do so.

Pragmatic decisions about research can lead to pragmatic findings and that’s not the language of the heart that we hope to find in qualitative research.

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