Whodunit: The Language of Responsibility

Sunday, June 30, 2013
First Aired: 
Sunday, June 12, 2011

What Is It

Who is responsible for the broken vase in the foyer? How harshly should criminals be punished for their crimes? Did Justin Timberlake mean to disrobe Janet Jackson during her infamous ‘wardrobe malfunction’? Cognitive scientists have recently discovered some surprising ways in which the language we use influences how we think about responsibility and agency. John and Ken are joined by Stanford psychologist Lera Boroditsky for a probing look at cross cultural variations in the language of responsibility. This program was recorded in front a live audience at the Marsh Theater in Berkeley, California.

Listening Notes

Did Dick Cheney "shoot his hunting partner," or did he "pull the trigger and then see his friend get wounded"? Live from the Marsh Theater in Berkeley, John and Ken discuss how language can affect the way we think about responsibility with Stanford psychology professor Lera Boroditsky. John and Ken begin by pondering the infamous case of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.” John argues that no matter how you describe what happened, it still happened in one way and, as such, we will assign responsibility uniformly. Disagreeing, Ken insists that how we linguistically frame the situation, in either agentive or passive language, colors how we are inclined to assign blame to Timberlake. If language can shape thought, Ken continues, and different languages use different ways of speaking about the causes of events, then conceptions of responsibility could actually vary across speakers of different languages.

Lera weighs in with her own research about how speakers of different languages have different targets of attention when considering a situation. Language, she explains, affects which of the many details of an event we find salient enough to encode into memory. For example, in Spanish, if an event was an accident, it is more likely to be described with a removal of the agent: “The book was lost.” English, on the other hand, generally employs a more agent-focused model of responsibility that might not take situational factors into as much consideration. These sorts of differences can have implications for how we intuitively feel about justice, our ability to explain causal relationships discovered by science, and our understanding of the causal relationship between culture and language itself.

In response to an audience member’s query of how we should construe agency, John briefly comments on the long-standing philosophical debate about free will. In addition, the power of giving something a single name, rather than being described in a phrase, is also explored. Ken, John, and Lera all agree that to have a compact reference for something raises it to salience, and facilitates a ready construal of that thing in the future. To close the show, an audience member suggests that there could still be universal ways of thinking unaffected by linguistic differences, like religion. But even religion, Lera points out, is modified in a way that allows it to be consistent with local cultures; how we speak and how we think are inextricably linked.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:16): Reporter Caitlin Esch speaks with Hamish Sinclair, founder of Manalive, a program in Bay Area prisons designed to train offenders how to talk about violence and responsibility in a way that will allow them to peacefully integrate back into society.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:15): Ian Schoales comically comments on the subjective nature of placement of blame, touching on everything from Clinton to BP.