Thinking in a Foreign Language Makes Decisions More Rational

‘Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language?’

To judge a risk more clearly, it may help to consider it in a foreign language.

A series of experiments on more than 300 people from the U.S. and Korea found that thinking in a second language reduced deep-seated, misleading biases that unduly influence how risks and benefits are perceived.

“Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue?” asked psychologists led by Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago in an April 18 Psychological Science study.

“It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases,” wrote Keysar’s team.

Psychologists say human reasoning is shaped by two distinct modes of thought: one that’s systematic, analytical and cognition-intensive, and another that’s fast, unconscious and emotionally charged.

In light of this, it’s plausible that the cognitive demandsof thinking in a non-native, non-automatic language would leave people with little leftover mental horsepower, ultimately increasing their reliance on quick-and-dirty cogitation.

Equally plausible, however, is that communicating in a learned language forces people to be deliberate, reducing the role of potentially unreliable instinct. Research also shows that immediate emotional reactions to emotively charged words are muted in non-native languages, further hinting at deliberation.

To investigate these possibilities, Keysar’s team developed several tests based on scenarios originally proposed by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who in 2002 won a Nobel Prize in economics for his work on prospect theory, which describes how people intuitively perceive risk.

In one famous example, Kahneman showed that, given the hypothetical option of saving 200 out of 600 lives, or taking a chance that would either save all 600 lives or none at all, people prefer to save the 200 — yet when the problem is framed in terms of losing lives, many more people prefer the all-or-nothing chance rather than accept a guaranteed loss of 400 lives.

People are, in a nutshell, instinctively risk-averse when considering gain and risk-taking when faced with loss, even when the essential decision is the same. It’s a gut-level human predisposition, and if second-language thinking made people think less systematically, Keysar’s team supposed the tendency would be magnified. Conversely, if second-language thinking promoted deliberation, the tendency would be diminished.

The first experiment involved 121 American students who learned Japanese as a second language. Some were presented in English with a hypothetical choice: To fight a disease that would kill 600,000 people, doctors could either develop a medicine that saved 200,000 lives, or a medicine with a 33.3 percent chance of saving 600,000 lives and a 66.6 percent chance of saving no lives at all.

Results of two tests of foreign-language effects on framing biases. In each, people were given the choice between sure savings or an all-or-nothing bet. Bars show how many people preferred sure savings when the choice was framed in terms of gains (black) or losses (gray) and considered in their native language (left pair) or second language (right pair). Image: Keysar et al./Psychological Science

Nearly 80 percent of the students chose the safe option. When the problem was framed in terms of losing rather than saving lives, the safe-option number dropped to 47 percent. When considering the same situation in Japanese, however, the safe-option number hovered around 40 percent, regardless of how choices were framed. The role of instinct appeared reduced.

Two subsequent experiments in which the hypothetical situation involved job loss rather than death, administered to 144 native Korean speakers from Korea’s Chung Nam National University and 103 English speakers studying abroad in Paris, found the same pattern of enhanced deliberation. “Using a foreign language diminishes the framing effect,” wrote Keysar’s team.

The researchers next tested how language affected decisions on matters of direct personal import. According to prospect theory, the possibility of small losses outweigh the promise of larger gains, a phenomenon called myopic risk aversion and rooted in emotional reactions to the idea of loss.

The same group of Korean students was presented with a series of hypothetical low-loss, high-gain bets. When offered bets in Korean, just 57 percent took them. When offered in English, that number rose to 67 percent, again suggesting heightened deliberation in a second language.

To see if the effect held up in real-world betting, Keysar’s team recruited 54 University of Chicago students who spoke Spanish as a second language. Each received $15 in $1 bills, each of which could be kept or bet on a coin toss. If they lost a toss, they’d lose the dollar, but winning returned the dollar and another $1.50 — a proposition that, over multiple bets, would likely be profitable.

When the proceedings were conducted in English, just 54 percent of students took the bets, a number that rose to 71 percent when betting in Spanish. “They take more bets in a foreign language because they expect to gain in the long run, and are less affected by the typically exaggerated aversion to losses,” wrote Keysar and colleagues.

The researchers believe a second language provides a useful cognitive distance from automatic processes, promoting analytical thought and reducing unthinking, emotional reaction.

“Given that more and more people use a foreign language on a daily basis, our discovery could have far-reaching implications,” they wrote, suggesting that people who speak a second language might use it when considering financial decisions. “Over a long time horizon, this might very well be beneficial.”

Citation: “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases.” By Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An. Psychological Science, published online 18 April 2012.

By Brandon Keim

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