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Abstract

Social norms can influence many decisions and behaviors, but whether people abide by norms depends on the situation. This dissertation explores a novel account that language may impact the extent to which people conform to social norms. In principle, norms are represented at a conceptual level and should not depend on language. However, I hypothesize that the very use of a native language promotes norm-abiding behavior. If this is true, then using a nonnative language should attenuate norm adherence. This account is motivated by research suggesting that norms may be more accessible in a native language relative to a nonnative language. For example, native languages are the conduits through which norms are learned, because much of moral development occurs during childhood (e.g. Rottman & Young, 2015). Native languages are also more emotionally resonant than nonnative languages (e.g., Aycicegi & Harris, 2004). This suggests that emotions triggered in response to norm violations, such as disgust and anger (e.g. Gutierrez & Giner-Sorolla, 2007), may be experienced less intensely in a nonnative language. If social norms are more top of mind in a native language, it is reasonable to expect that bilinguals may also be more likely to abide by social norms when using a native language compared to a nonnative language. In this dissertation, I explore this hypothesis in two decisional contexts. First, this account predicts that bilinguals would choose to discuss embarrassing and socially sensitive matters using a nonnative language, because it is less associated with social norms. In Experiments 1 to 5, I evaluated bilinguals’ choice of language for speaking about a variety of embarrassing content that included sexual taboos (Experiments 1 to 3), disgusting bodily activities (Experiments 1, 4, and 5), and intrusive questions about sensitive topics (Experiments 4 and 5). Participants were more likely to choose a nonnative language to speak about embarrassing content (compared to neutral topics). This was true among bilinguals who use English as a nonnative language (Experiments 1 and 2: Cantonese-English bilinguals, Experiment 4: Mandarin-English bilinguals) as well as bilinguals who speak English as a native language (Experiment 5: English-Spanish bilinguals). These findings traverse cultural and linguistic boundaries and are found with a variety of embarrassing topics, suggesting that the effect is not driven by cultural rules about specific taboos. Rather, bilinguals’ language choices are likely driven by the differences between a native and nonnative language, although it is possible that cultural norms of self-disclosure contributed to the effect. In Experiments 4 and 5, I evaluated these potential mechanisms, including the emotional and social consequences that people anticipated when using different languages, the degree to which people associated what they would say in different languages with their sense of self, as well as perceived cultural norms of disclosure. Additionally, Experiment 3 explored a boundary condition by testing Mandarin-English bilinguals. Bilinguals did not choose a nonnative language to discuss embarrassing topics when the nonnative language overlapped significantly with the native language in terms of culture and morphology. While the first part of the dissertation evaluates the languages bilinguals choose to use when they violate social norms, the second part evaluates how the use of a language impacts their norm-violating behavior. If a native language promotes norm-abiding behavior, then bilinguals should be more likely to divulge sensitive information in response to intrusive questions presented in a nonnative language compared to a native language. Experiment 6 supports the account as Mandarin-English bilinguals were more likely to divulge in English compared to Mandarin. However, Experiment 7 does not support the account because Hebrew-English bilinguals showed no difference in divulging behaviors across language conditions. The mixed results suggest that culture may moderate this phenomenon, for example, by influencing participants’ perceptions of how intrusive the stimuli are. Foreign language use is a fundamental aspect of human interactions as millions of people around the world use more than one language every day. We know from earlier studies that foreign language use promotes decisions which are less emotionally grounded (e.g. Keysar et al., 2012), yet other behavioral consequences of using a nonnative tongue remain under-researched. This dissertation tests how using a native versus foreign language influences adherence to social norms. It expands our understanding of how bilinguals communicate and interact with language.

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