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article imageStudy: People make more rational decisions in a foreign language

By Leigh Goessl     Apr 26, 2012 in Science
Chicago - Researchers have come up with another potential benefit to learning a secondary language. In a new study, University of Chicago researchers suggest people make 'more rational' decisions if they think a problem through in their non-native language.
According to the study, researchers suggest individuals who make decisions when thinking through their options in a foreign language is beneficial.
Boaz Keysar, University of Chicago psychologist and communication expert, said in a press release, "We know from previous research that because people are naturally loss-averse, they often forgo attractive opportunities. Our new findings demonstrate that such aversion to losses is much reduced when people make decisions in their non-native language."
To come to this conclusion, Keysar, along with co-authors University of Chicago graduate students Sayuri Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An, studied results of six experiments that spanned three continents and included over 600 participants who spoke either English, Korean, French, Spanish and Japanese. Participants had to demonstrate proficiency in a second language.
The researchers wanted to examine how loss aversion affected decision-making.
In order to do this, the series of experiments were conducted. In one of the trials, the team had students consider hypothetical risks. The team noted individuals were more "likely to take favorable risks" if they weighed their options in another language.
In another experiment, this was put to the test with real bets. For this trial, subjects were asked to make decisions in both English and Spanish.
According to the press release, this is how it worked:
Each participant received $15 in dollar bills, from which they took $1 for each bet. They could either keep the dollar or risk it for the possibility of getting an extra $1.50 if they won a coin toss. So in each round, they could net $2.50 if they won the toss, or get nothing if they lost. The bets were attractive because statistically, the students stood to come out ahead if they took all 15 bets.
When making the decision in English, researchers found the individuals to be shortsighted in their decisions because they were focused on fear of losing; this group only bet 54 percent of the time. Whereas, those making the decision in Spanish, bet 71 percent of the time.
"Perhaps the most important mechanism for the effect is that a foreign language has less emotional resonance than a native tongue," co-author Hayakawa said. "An emotional reaction could lead to decisions that are motivated more by fear than by hope, even when the odds are highly favorable."
Additionally, the Chicago researchers tested irregularity in decision making when considering risk evaluation. They found this disappeared when thought through in a foreign language.
"People who routinely make decisions in a foreign language might be less biased in their savings, investment and retirement decisions, as they show less myopic loss aversion. Over a long time horizon, this might very well be beneficial," the authors wrote.
Researchers also indicated this concept could have a notable impact on the global economy if businesspeople began thinking through economic issues in a non-native tongue.
If individuals were to use their bilingual skills more often when making decisions, would this help improve innovative thinking, perhaps leading to improved economic conditions? Could be, since researchers suggest thinking in another language helps erase cognitive biases.
However, as Business Week suggests, "a large body of experimental evidence shows that emotions are immensely valuable in making good decisions—that gut instincts derive from hard-earned experience and are ignored at our peril." The article said the trick is to determine which decisions are best considered in a native tongue and which might benefit musing in a second language.
Business Week reported Keysar noted it's "too early" to recommend how to "inoculate" people against "silly mistakes," but did indicate perhaps thinking through in two languages might help present the problem in different ways. For a similar effect, those that do not speak two or more languages can try reading in different fonts.
Entitled "The Foreign Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases," the study has been published in the current issue of Psychological Science.
More about Study, Foreign Language, Rational, University of Chicago
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