One of psychology’s major contributions has been to document the myriad ways our thinking is sent haywire by a series of biases. Investigations into the ways and means to combat these biases have lagged behind, but that’s starting to change. Now a team of researchers at the University of Chicago has reported that people are immune to two key biases when they think in their second, less familiar language.
The first half of the investigation involved well-established framing effects. Participants were told that 600,000 people were at risk from a deadly disease. They were then presented with the same decision framed differently. In one condition, they chose between a medicine (A) that would definitely save 200,000 lives versus another (B) that had a 33.3 per cent chance of saving 600,000 people and a 66.6 per cent chance of saving no one. In another condition, the participants chose between a medicine (A) that meant 400,000 people will die versus another (B) that had a 33.3 per cent chance that no one will die and 66.6 per cent that 600,000 will die.
The gamble in each condition is effectively the same, but numerous studies have shown that people are systematically influenced by the way the choice is framed. In the first condition, the gains of A are made salient, and people tend to prefer the certainty of that option. In the second condition, A’s losses are made more salient and people prefer to take the risk of medicine B.
Boaz Keysar and his team showed that dozens of native English speakers showed the typical framing effect when they completed the task in English, but not when they completed the task in their second, classroom-learned language of Japanese. It was a similar story with native Korean speakers – they showed no framing effect when they completed the task in English. And it was the same again with native French speakers when they completed the task in their second language of English. A follow-up study added a third inferior option to the decision task and confirmed that participants weren’t just choosing at random when taking part in their second language.
The second half of the investigation focused on loss aversion. We’re typically affected emotionally twice as much by losses as we are affected positively by gains of equivalent size. So, presented with a series of bets on the toss of a coin, with the chance to win $1.50 or lose $1, people will tend to shy away from the bet even though the cold logic of probability theory suggests they’ll win out in the long run. Keysar and his colleagues gave native English speakers $15 in cash to play 15 rounds of this game, with the chance to keep the balance of their wins and losses at the end. The key finding was that the players were far more willing to gamble when they played the game in their second language of Spanish.
The researchers aren’t entirely sure why speaking in a less familiar tongue makes people more “rational”, in the sense of not being affected by framing effects or loss aversion. But they think it may have to do with creating psychological distance, encouraging systematic rather than automatic thinking, and with reducing the emotional impact of decisions. This would certainly fit with past research that’s shown the emotional impact of swear words, expressions of love and adverts is diminished when they’re presented in a less familiar language.
The findings have important implications for international internet research – psychological measures could vary according to whether participants are answering in their mother tongue or in a second language learned later in life. More generally, the researchers said the findings could have ramifications for real life. “People who routinely make decisions in a foreign language rather than their native tongue might be less biased in their savings, investment, and retirement decisions, as a result of reduced myopic loss aversion,” they concluded. “Over a long time horizon, this might very well be beneficial.”
Boaz Keysar,, Sayuri L. Hayakawa, and Sun Gyu An (2012). The Foreign-Language Effect, Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases. Psychological Science DOI: 1177/0956797611432178