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Speaking a Foreign Language Reduces Decision Biases

We make better decisions when thinking in a foreign tongue

Every day, millions of people use more than one language to communicate at work or at home. You might not expect that the decisions a person makes would depend on whether they use their native language versus a foreign one. But, new research published in the journal Psychological Science shows that people’s solution to a problem depends on what language they are thinking in.

When we are confronted with a problem to be solved, two different psychological processes end up being deployed. First, we start consciously searching for a solution. This systematic and analytical search uses up a lot of mental resources. Then there is a second, unconscious process, that helps us arrive at a solution in a more intuitive manner, often based on a gut feeling or emotion.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see how speaking a foreign language might be cognitively demanding, which ought to push people to rely more on their intuitive or emotion-driven reasoning process. But, University of Chicago psychologist Boaz Keysar and his research team have actually shown that the opposite is true. As it happens, when we think in a foreign language we tend to adopt a more deliberate mode of thinking. The end result is that our solutions to problems tend to be less emotion-laden. We are actually less likely to be pushed around by misleading information.

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To show how speaking a foreign language reduces decision bias, Keysar and his research team randomly assigned bilinguals to perform a problem solving task in one of the two languages they knew.

Everyone started by reading the following scenario:

Recently, a dangerous new disease has been going around. Without medicine, 600,000 people will die from it. In order to save these people, two types of medicine are being made.

Some people then read…

If you choose Medicine A, 200,000 people will be saved.

If you choose Medicine B, there is a 33.3% chance that 600,000 people will be saved and a 66.6% chance that no one will be saved.

Which medicine do you choose?

While others read…

If you choose Medicine A, 400,000 people will die.

If you choose Medicine B, there is a 33.3% chance no one will die and a 66.6% chance that 600,000 people will die.

Which medicine do you choose?

A careful read of these two scenarios reveals that they are exactly the same. The only difference is that the first scenario is framed in terms of gains (how many people will be saved) while the second is framed in terms of losses (how many people will die).

According to standard economic theory, people shouldn’t be pushed around by the framing – after all, the two scenarios provide us with the same information. But, people often are. Folks are more risk averse when things are described in terms of potential gains compared to when they are described in terms of losses.

And, sure enough, when speaking their native language, 77% of people preferred Medicine A in the gains scenario. This is compared to only 47% who took Medicine A when presented with the second, losses scenario. People were pushed around by how the problem was framed. Crucially, this asymmetry disappeared when the decisions were made in people’s foreign tongue – Medicine A was chosen equally as much regardless of whether folks got the first or second scenario.

When people make decisions in a foreign language, their decisions tend to be less rooted in emotional reactions. Interestingly, speaking a foreign language might come especially in handy when people find themselves having to make a high-stakes decision – say about savings or investments. When we feel pressure, this anxiety often compromises the functioning of our prefrontal cortex, the very seed of the conscious processes that help with deliberate, analytical decision making. Under stress, then, we tend to revert to our gut feelings or emotions to drive decisions (and not necessarily for the better). What this new research suggests is that problem solving in a foreign tongue might actually help guard against biased decision making by pushing us back to our more analytical and systematic reasoning abilities instead.

For more on how to make the best decisions, especially under stress, check out my book Choke!

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Keysar, B. et al. (2012). The Foreign-Language Effect : Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases. Psychological Science.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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