Reduce Dumb Decisions by Thinking in a Foreign Language

May 22, 2012 10:46am

Forget about dropping that Korean or Spanish or Japanese lesson, and not just because sticking with it might make it easier to navigate a polyglot world.

It can pay off in other ways too. People who think problems through in a foreign language – and it doesn’t matter which one – make more rational decisions and are more apt to take smart risks, especially in the financial realm, according to a recent study in the journal Psychological Science.

Left to follow their gut  instincts, people are naturally loss-averse, sometimes myopically so, and often pass up favorable opportunities as a result, says Boaz Keysar, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and lead author of the study.

“Imagine I offer you $100, or we flip a coin and if it’s heads, you get $200, and if it’s tails, you get nothing,” Keysar says. “Most people would say, ‘I’ll take the $100′ and not risk getting nothing. Ninety-nine percent of people would do that, even if I offer $2,200 or nothing. We have an emotional reaction to a definite, immediate gain.”

But consider the proposal in Korean, French, Spanish, Japanese – any non-native tongue – and the aversion to losses diminishes, and our willingness to take risks changes, Keysar and his research team found.

“A foreign language is less emotionally connected than our native tongue, and distances you,” says Keysar,  who, even after 25 years in the United States, says he still “operates differently” in English than in his native Hebrew.

“A non-native language takes you away cognitively and slows you down, especially if you’re not that skilled in it,” he says.

Counterintuitive as that seems, it’s a nice boost for the language slackers. “The less proficient you are in a second language, the more you’ll deliberate over decisions,” Keysar says, “and your choices benefit from such deliberation. It’s like you become somewhat of a different person.”

In one of six  experiments to gauge just how different, Keysar and colleagues enlisted 54 University of Chicago students who were native English speakers but had been studying Spanish. They gave each student $15 in $1 bills to make 15 separate bets in a coin toss. In each toss, they could either pass up the bet and keep the dollar, or risk losing it for the possibility of getting an extra $1.50 if they won the toss, or nothing if they lost. These were advantageous bets, Keysar explains, as statistically, the students stood to come out ahead if they took all 15 bets.

While the students who considered the wager in Spanish took the bet 71 percent of the time, those who thought it through in English were willing to wager only 54 percent of the time.

“Bear in mind that we gave them the $15. It’s not as if it was even their own money,” Keysar says. “But  in the foreign language, they were not as motivated by fear.”

While not involved in the Chicago study, Benjamin Bergen, director of the Language and Cognition Lab at the University of California at San Diego, says, “There’s a lot of evidence that people have strong emotional reactions to words in their native language. Even if they’re fluent, bilingual, words they’ve acquired early on in life, on their caregiver’s knee, really have more impact on them.

“But what’s the exact mechanism at work? Why do you show more of these signs of irrationality in your  native language at the level of the brain? It leaves many questions open.”

Some clues might lie in past studies on “taboo” words that measured people’s electro-physiological responses to hearing swears in their own language and in a foreign language. People reacted with less emotion – and less sweat – to  these words in a foreign language.

“Those words go to some deep levels of emotion that are inaccessible in the second language,” says Evelina Fedorenko, a research scientist in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. As a native Russian speaker, Fedorenko says, “I can relate  to that. Swear words in English just do nothing for me at all. I’m totally insensitive to them even though I think in English, I count in English, I dream in English.  But I would never swear in Russian.”

Whatever the mechanism at work, Keysar is quick to point out that distancing people emotionally from important decisions is not always the best course, and is now  studying when the opposite is true. “We have an emotional system for a reason,” he says.  “It’s not something that’s just there in the way.”

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