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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 5

Reasoning Is Sharper in a Foreign Language

We might be least rational about money in our native tongues



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The language we use affects the decisions we make, according to a new study. Participants made more rational decisions when money-related choices were posed in a foreign language that they had learned in a classroom setting than when they were asked in a native tongue.

To study how language affects reasoning, University of Chicago psychologists looked at a well-known phenomenon: people are more risk-averse when an impersonal decision (such as which vaccine to administer to a population) is presented in terms of a potential gain than when it is framed as a potential loss even when the outcomes are equivalent. In the study, published online in April in Psychological Science, native English speakers who had learned Japanese, native Korean speakers who had learned English and native English speakers studying French in Paris all surrendered to the expected bias when they encountered the question in their native tongue. In their foreign language, however, the bias disappeared.

A second set of experiments tested another cognitive bias—we anticipate a personal loss will be more painful than an identical gain will be pleasant, so the benefit of winning must be disproportionately large for us to take a bet (such as gambling with our own money). Again, the foreign-language effect prevailed in two different experiments, one with native Korean speakers and one with native English speakers. The Koreans took more hypothetical bets in English than Korean, and the native English speakers took more real bets in Spanish than they did in English.

“When people use a foreign language, their decisions tend to be less biased, more analytic, more systematic, because the foreign language provides psychological distance,” lead author Boaz Keysar suggests. Cognitive biases are rooted in emotional reactions, and thinking in a foreign language helps us disconnect from these emotions and make decisions in a more economically rational way. This study did not consider, however, the instances in which emotional engagement im-proves, rather than hinders, our choices: “We have an emotional system for a good reason,” Keysar says.

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