Psychological research shows that people are more likely to sacrifice one person to save five people when they hear a foreign accent.

It is a well-known psychological dilemma: you stand on a bridge and see how a train is heading towards a group of people. There is a button on the bridge. When you press it, the train will switch tracks and not the group of people, but only one person working on the other track will run over. What are you doing?

You can look at this dilemma in two ways. You can say: I flip the switch and this results in one human being killed, but five others are saved. Or you can say: I don’t want to have a murder on my conscience and do nothing.

New research has now shown that an accent influences the outcome of that question. If people are presented with a moral dilemma in their own language but pronounced with a foreign accent, it seems to cause them to make more rational decisions.

Foreign Language Effect

In the study, linguists build on previous research showing that language influences moral decision-making. “People make more rational decisions in their second language than in their mother tongue,” explains linguist Susanne Brouwer. “We also call it the ‘Foreign Language Effect’.


The researchers now wanted to study whether foreign accents also lead to a similar effect. To find out, they presented two moral dilemmas to 435 Spaniards and Dutch. The participants were given the choice – just like in the example mentioned at the beginning of this article – to sacrifice one person to save five people. The dilemmas were either expressed by a native speaker or by a speaker with a foreign accent. For the Spaniards, the dilemma was pronounced with an English or Cameroonian accent. For the Dutch in an English, Turkish or French accent.

Same effect

It leads to an interesting conclusion. Because in the experiments, the researchers discovered that the accent produced the same result as previously the foreign language. So they actually found a ‘Foreign Accent effect’.

Another twist

It means that a moral dilemma actually takes a different turn when people with a foreign accent present it to us. And that is quite striking. “It does differ per accent,” explains Brouwer. “But in general we see that people react more rationally to the dilemmas spoken in their native language with a foreign accent than to the same dilemmas spoken without an accent. So people are more likely to sacrifice one person to save five people when they hear a foreign accent. A foreign accent is therefore a different linguistic context that can influence people’s behaviour.”

The researchers are still working on follow-up research, among other things to make the results more robust and to gain more insight into explanations for the Foreign Accent effect. Because what exactly is behind this? In any case, according to Brouwer, the research shows that we need to be more aware of the effect of foreign languages ​​and accents on our moral decisions.