The authors ran additional experiments using a paradigm called loss aversion, another case where emotion can influence decision making. People are reluctant to accept bets that involve a chance of losing money, even if the odds are in the favor of winning, such as a 50 percent chance of winning $12 vs. losing $10. Keysar and colleagues found that, regardless of whether the bilinguals played with hypothetical money or real cash that could be kept after the experiment ended, bilinguals accepted the positive bets more often when they played using their foreign language and more often resisted betting when using their native language. This confirmed the finding of being reasoning more logically when using a foreign language.
Language has been traditionally viewed as a vehicle for communicating information (indeed, Chomsky famously characterized language as a mental algebra). Researchers have assumed that, as along as people are proficient enough, then how they respond will not be affected by the language they are using. It is now becoming better appreciated that people answer surveys differently depending on the language. For example, Chinese international students studying in North America agreed with traditional Chinese values more when answering a survey in Chinese; they had higher self-esteem scores when completing a self-esteem questionnaire in English. The full extent of these effects of languages on responses are still being investigated.
Like the other emotional-language effects discussed above, Keysar's study on how language influences decision making are laboratory effects. Is this what happens outside the lab? Psychologists are increasingly advising foreigners in the US to seek psychotherapy with a bilingual counselor, and, to minimize missing nuances or emotional implications, to avoid conducting life-or-death conversations in a foreign language, such as a serious talk with a doctor, taking a polygraph test, or undergoing police interrogation. But in the decision making case studied by the Chicago team, use of a foreign language led to more logical and better decisions. Does this imply that bilinguals should routinely seek to use their foreign languages when making decisions? Should they buy a house or plan their retirement using a foreign language? An ethnographic approach could analyze cases where individuals end up using their native or a foreign language to conduct business. A wide range of laboratory and/or field experiments should be conducted in order to determine if the elimination of framing effects is a cute laboratory finding or something that may influence real life.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.