Why Thinking In A Foreign Language Makes You More Rational

Researchers at the University of Chicago asked a seemingly innocuous question: “Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue?” (find the paper here)

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The answer is “no”. In the worlds of Boaz Keysar, the lead researcher:

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. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears when choices are presented in a foreign tongue. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native tongue, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language.

The team ran several experiments largely inspired by Daniel Kahneman’s prospect theory, which describes how people understand risk and outcome in decision-making. One important conclusion of prospect theory is that people’s attitudes toward risks when it comes to gains are different from their attitudes toward risks when it comes to losses. In layman’s terms, people tend to be more risk-averse for gains, and less risk-averse (therefore, more risk-tolerant) for losses.

The team was surprised to find that using a foreign language reduces loss aversion, and increases the acceptance of both hypothetical and real bets or scenarios with positive expected value.

Here is an overview of one of their experiments, among 54 University of Chicago native English speakers who knew Spanish as a foreign language:

Each participant received $15 in cash. In each round, the participant removed one dollar bill from his or her remaining cash and decided whether to use it in a bet. For each bet, the experimenter flipped a coin in plain view while the participant called out “heads/cara” or “tails/cruz.” If the participant was correct, he or she kept the dollar and received an extra $1.50. Otherwise, he or she lost the dollar. If the participant declined the bet, he or she kept the dollar and moved on to the next round. In each round, the expected value of taking the bet was $1.25. Participants knew that they would keep the money they accrued.

Note that this is a bet that will be profitable over-time. So what were the results?

Those who went through the task in Spanish were more willing to take the bet than those who did so in English. This increased willingness to take the bet in Spanish shows that people are less averse to losses in a foreign language setting than in one in their native language. They are more willing to take the bet in a foreign language because they are more likely to recognize the long-term gain, and less likely to overestimate the chances of a loss, which prospect theory demonstrates. Therefore, they are more rational decision-makers.

But why? Here is Keysar again:

Perhaps the most important mechanism for our effect is the reduction in emotional resonance that is associated with using a foreign language. Emotions and affect play an important role in decision-making and in considerations of risk. An emotional reaction sometimes induces a less systematic decision. Making a decision in a foreign language could reduce the emotional reaction, thereby reducing bias. […] In general, then, decision biases that are rooted in an emotional reaction should be less manifest with a foreign language than with a native language.

The bottom line: These very interesting effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native language does, allowing people to make more rational decisions.

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