Thinking in a foreign language, we’re less prone to superstition

By Alex Fradera

Operating in our second language can have some intriguing psychological effects. We swear more freely and linger longer on embarrassing topics than normal. We’re also less susceptible to cognitive biases. According to psychologist Constantinos Hadjichristidis at the University of Trento, this is because a second language discourages us from relying on intuitive thinking. In a new paper in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Hadjichristidis and his colleagues have shown another way that this manifests – when thinking in a foreign language, we’re less prone to superstition.

In one experiment, 400 native German speakers with proficiency in English imagined themselves in various scenarios, described either in German or English text, about an important day, like the morning before an exam or the day of a job application deadline. Each scenario involved a break in the routine, which was either mundane (like discovering the kitchen sink being blocked or spotting an airplane in the sky), or had a superstitious connotation – negative, like a mirror breaking, or positive, such as spotting a falling star in the sky. Participants rated how positive or negative they would feel in these situations, responding in the same language as the text.

Reading and responding in English, rather than German, made no difference to participants’ ratings of how they’d feel following a mundane event, but led to them describing less intense emotional reactions to the events with a superstitious connotation: they said they’d feel less negative about the bad luck events and less positive about the good luck events.

What’s happening here? Intuition depends on easily accessible connections, such as the term “broken mirror” being repeatedly associated with dismay or discomfort. These connections tend to be built in earlier life, and invariably in our native tongue (the German participants in this research had only begun learning English from age 12, on average). When we encounter a concept loaded with superstitious symbolism in our second tongue, we know what it means literally, but the emotional associations don’t come along automatically.

Left unchecked, our thinking is always influenced by our intuitions, which means even those who want to live as hard-nosed materialists may find magical thinking creeping in through the side gate. One way to combat this is to monitor the ideas that form and try to expel the unwanted influences. But this research suggests another approach: bar the gate so the influences don’t enter in the first place. For now, this option is only available to bilinguals, but it opens a route for discovering other modes of thinking that are more intuition-free.

Breaking Magic: Foreign Language Suppresses Superstition

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

19 thoughts on “Thinking in a foreign language, we’re less prone to superstition”

  1. It would be an interesting extension of this research, to explore what impact that lower superstition has on religiosity in communities such as the muslim and Jewish community. Does not learning English, therefore, have a direct knock on effect of reinforcing belief in superstitious religious viewpoints, hence strengthening cultural isolation and further causing people to fall back on magical thinking. This is potentially a very important point to inform the debate about the failure of multicultural integration in communities where rates of learning the host language are low. Fascinating article.

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    1. Hi Nick,

      That seems a funny way to frame it.

      Any ethnic group that have a commonly held language beyond English, and live in an English-speaking country, are going to be more likely to spend time speaking in a second language than those people who only speaks a single language, English. So trying to get public policy out of this research in a principled way would lead, if anything, to focusing on the monolingual English-speakers as a target group.

      Moreover, this research doesn’t show that people who use multiple languages more become less habitually superstitious, only that they do so when they operate within that language. So even if we did – following your reasoning, if not your prescription – focus efforts on the monolingual English to speak French four hours a week, we don’t know if that would make them less liable to magical thinking as they crane to kiss their Chelsea shirt at the start of the match, or cross their fingers as they wait for their eBay bid to go through.

      This is not to make any claims either way about the broader value of shared language, both to society and to individuals in general. But your claims use the findings and logic very selectively to create a shaky and irrelevant argument.

      Here’s something that might be useful. It’s shaped like a joke.

      A hypothetical monolingual Jewish person and a hypothetical monolingual Muslim person turn up to a community centre, where they are greeted by the hypothetical monolingual manager. They quickly discover they have no common language.

      The Muslim person thinks “right now, I wish I spoke another language, it could make it possible to speak to these people.”

      The Jewish person thinks “it would be really handy if we had a language in common, we would be less isolated in this moment”

      The manager thinks “it’s a shame they don’t speak a second language. Then, their levels of intuitive thinking might be marginally lower when using it – and that’s the REAL problem right now.”

      The manager adds, mentally “not for me, of course. I’m fine.”

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    2. @Nick who said “It would be an interesting extension of this research, to explore what impact that lower superstition has on religiosity in communities such as the muslim and Jewish community”.

      That *is* an interesting point. Thanks. I grew up in England with parents who were militant atheists and became Christian in France, so French is my adoptive thinking language. When thinking through possible conflicts, I can hold a mental conversation between the English-speaking atheist “in me” and the French christian. The dialectic seems to be influenced by which language is used to express a given notion, so would be different for a native French speaker converted in England. However, the analysis has to be imperfect because I’m using concepts learned recently both inside and outside the Christian community. For example “God doesn’t exist”. Then going back to “exister”, I hit upon Emanuel Levinas book “De l’existence à l’existant”. Then think aha ! God only doesn’t exist in relation to a fairly narrow context. then returning to my Bible that I’ve never read in English “my God my God why have you forsaken me” (I had to get the translation then!). Could that mean God didn’t exist for Jesus at that instant such that he was living out the situation of a condemned atheist ? etc etc.

      My (French) pastor became Christian when studying in England. I’ll ask him what he thinks about your question. Thanks again 🙂 Paul_W11iams.

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  2. Yeap, but my point was reliant on cultural priming. As monolingual English speakers, we have our non-religious schools and a very real history and culture of rationalism. I contrast that with people who have come from countries or communities saturated with religious aspects to every part of life, where Gins and devils still overlap in their daily lives. I wondered then, if your culture is dominated by non-evidential, magical thinking, then would not having a second language compound that religiosity. Not the most relevant point, but still of some relevance at least.

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  3. I wonder if doing all their science in Latin had some additional benefits for early scientists? It would stand to reason that a universal Latin scientific dialogue would vaccinate early scientists in a way that allowed them to filter out 16th century superstitition and focus on what’s real.

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  4. Hello Everyone,

    I think many of you are looking at this research the wrong way. It is unlikely that the lexical content of English is inhibiting the speakers intuitive process. What is interesting is what this says about how language is stored in the mind. This research suggests that there are connotations which are associated only with a lexical item in the mind and not the mental representation that that item stands for. In other words, a feeling of dismay is not associated with the concept of a broken mirror, but with the word broken mirror itself. That is interesting because you would likely assume the ooposite, that we don’t have feelings about words, we have feeling about the ideas behind those words. This research suggests otherwise.

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  5. Makes sense in terms of ‘thinking fast and slow’ and the extra effort required to think and reproduce thoughts in a second language . I wonder if it applies to all languages equally? I would guess other factors such as how similar or easy a second language is to learn for the individual, age at which this second language is acquired, number of languages spoken fluently and whether frequency of use/ extent to which a second language is practiced depletes the effect over time?

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