Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Crimes that were written in a foreign language were systematically evaluated as less severe, maybe due to attenuated emotional processing in a nonnative language

Woumans, E., Van der Cruyssen, I., & Duyck, W. (2020). Crime and punishment: Morality judgment in a foreign language. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Jan 2020. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000736

Abstract: The current study examined whether use of a foreign language affects the manner in which people evaluate a criminal situation. We employed a range of crime scenarios, for which severity judgment scores were obtained. Crimes that were written in a foreign language were systematically evaluated as less severe compared with the same cases described in the native language. We propose that these differences may be due to attenuated emotional processing in a nonnative language. Crucially, this observed variation in severity judgment may also affect magistrates and police interrogators confronted with crime scenarios formulated in a foreign tongue. This in turn would have inevitable consequences for the penalty they will or will not exact on the suspect.


The goal of the present study was to identify whether use of a foreign language
influences crime judgment. Our results show that a crime is indeed deemed less severe
when it is described in a language other than the native one. This was the case for all four
murder scenarios employed in this study, making it the first demonstration ever that
crime judgment is affected by language use. Hence, the outcome of our study is
imperative for actual administration of justice in a globalised world, where suspects,
juries, and judges often have different native languages than the official language of the
jurisdiction in which they live.

Previous research on juridic judgment had already established that judges are
prone to certain bias when it comes to crime assessment. As such, attractiveness and
facial characteristics of the offender seem to determine the verdict and stringency of the
sentence. Attractive individuals and individuals with large and round eyes, high
eyebrows, and a narrow chin (i.e. baby-faced) tend to be judged less severely, an effect
which has been observed in lab settings (e.g. Berry & Zebrowitz-McArthur, 1988; Efran,
1974; Leventhal & Krate, 1977) as well as in field studies (e.g. Stewart, 180; 1985;
Zebrowitz & McDonald, 1991). Although these findings are striking, personal
appearance may be deemed a more plausible determinant of judgment than the language
employed. Intuitively, one would conceive that accounts of a crime are visualised in a
juror’s mind, creating a scenario independent of language. Nevertheless, similar findings
have been reported within the literature on moral decision-making (Costa et al., 2017).
Here, the prevailing theory ascribes the effect to emotional attenuation as a result of
foreign language processing. Still, it may also be the case that use of a foreign language
reduces vividness of mental imagery (Hayakawa & Keysar, 2018), which in turn may 
hamper emotional processing. In any case, moral dilemmas involve personal harm for the
respondents, as they are the ones deciding on matters of life and death. The current
research now shows that the foreign language effect persists, even if a third person is the
agent of the scenario and the respondent is merely a ‘bystander’.

Although the foreign language effect was observed systematically, our study is
characterised by the fact that our crime cases varied in both motive and feelings of
remorse. Furthermore, we noticed that narratives in which the agent was male were rated
more gravely, both by male and female participants. It may be the case that crimes
committed by men are judged as more appalling than crimes committed by women.
Conversely, it is possible that gender and severity coincidentally coincided.
Notwithstanding, we believe that neither explanation alters the key finding of this study,
namely the impact of foreign language use. Moreover, this may be regarded as a
validation that the effect of language is persistent and does not depend on specific story
characteristics. This being said, we must also point out that our participant sample
consisted of both sexes, but was still dominantly female (86%). Previous research has
demonstrated that females may be more ethically sensitive than males (e.g. Roxas &
Stoneback, 2004). We must therefore note that the general outcome of this study could
vary if the sample consists of only males, who may be less severe in their judgment.
Nevertheless, there is again no indication that this may influence the effect of language
reported here. Furthermore, as the materials in this study were transferred into the other
language using the method of back-translation by a non-native speaker, future work may
need to determine whether materials written by native speakers would affect text
perception, be it emotionally or otherwise.

All in all, our findings indicate that use of a foreign language diminishes crime
severity judgment, and whilst our study was conducted among laypeople, evidence from
field studies into judgment bias related to the appearance of offenders suggests that our
results may extrapolate to professionals. Crucially, the observed variation in morality
standards may also affect magistrates and police interrogators confronted with crime
scenarios formulated in a foreign tongue, who will consider these cases to be less severe
than they would in their native one. This in turn would have inevitable consequences for
the penalty they will or will not exact on the suspect. To illustrate, in the case of the
European Court of Human Rights, the working language is either English or French.
These are the languages in which judges deliberate, pleadings and written legal
submissions are translated, and the judgment is drafted. As this court often deals with
important cases such a prohibition of torture, right to life, and right to liberty and
security, it would have serious repercussions if judges were to underestimate the gravity
of the situation merely due to the language being used. Naturally, this is not the sole
example. In an increasingly multilingual society (Grosjean, 2012), judges and juries all
over the world may be operating in a non-native language.

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