Think More Clearly In Translation

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Mr. Spock was right…humans are illogical creatures. If you’ve ever wished you could think more like a Vulcan, learning (and using) another language can help. A new study written up in Psychological Science shows that when you are facing a problem, you are more likely to make a rational decision about the solution if you consider in it your second language as opposed to your first.

In an abstract, study author Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago described the results:

“Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue? 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.”

So, how does this work? As Mr. Spock so frequently and astutely observed in Star Trek, we humans have some common instinctual biases that often override our capacity for logic. The experiments in the study examined the effect of thinking in a foreign language on two of these biases: the framing effect and myopic risk aversion.

The framing effect is the effect that the way a question is asked can have on the decisions we make. For example, if you knew for a fact that you could save five out of ten people from a disaster, or you could try to save them all with a lower chance of succeeding, what would you do? Take the “safe option,” and save the five you knew you could save? Or take a risk and try to save everybody? The answer generally depends on whether the question is framed in terms of “lives saved” or “lives lost,” with people more likely to take the “safe option” if the question is phrased in terms of lives saved.

However, as reported in Wired, when students who spoke Japanese as a second language were asked to consider the situation in Japanese, the discrepancy in their answers disappeared.

Likewise, students who spoke Spanish as a second language were more likely to take profitable bets that  involved a small upfront loss when the offer was presented to them in Spanish rather than English. They were less “myopically risk averse,” able to overlook a small loss now in favor of long-term profit.

In the abstract, the study’s authors wrote,  “We propose that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does.”

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by JD Hancock