Less thinking biases in a foreign tongue

A fascinating study just published in Psychological Science has found that solving problems in a foreign language reduces cognitive biases.

The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases

Psychological Science, Published online before print, April 18, 2012

Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa, Sun Gyu An

Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue? It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic.

We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears when choices are presented in a foreign tongue. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native tongue, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language.

Two additional experiments show that using a foreign language reduces loss aversion, increasing the acceptance of both hypothetical and real bets with positive expected value. We propose that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does.


Link to study summary (via @ProfessorFunk)

16 thoughts on “Less thinking biases in a foreign tongue”

  1. Hi Vaughan,
    Asking too much perhaps but did level of mastery of the 2nd language have an effect? Do the biases regain potency as the language becomes more “natural”?

    Warm Regards,

  2. I was thinking the exact same thing Simon. Maybe if it takes more effort to form the sentences, that helps people to slow down and use the second, slower processing system better.

    I’d also be curious if the same language was the foreign one in each study. E.g, English was always L1 and Spanish was always L2. Because perhaps certain biases and heuristics are tied up in a certain language.

    Can’t access psych science so can’t check!

    1. @Simon & @Warren

      I quickly scanned the article, and there were different L1/L2 combinations. The first three experiments had

      L1 = English (proficiency 6.9/10)
      L2 = Japanese (4.2)

      L1 = Korean (8.5)
      L2 = English (4.4)

      L1 = English (?)
      L2 = French (3.8)

      The three experiments produced results that were pretty similar. The mean age of all participants was around 22 years; the first group started learning Japanese at mean age 17, the second group started learning English at mean age 12 and the third group started learning French at mean age 16.

  3. Unless the language is acquired early enough to be using the same type of storage as the primary language (that is, true bilingual), then it’s necessarily going to affect processing differently, because it will be coming from a different section of brain. I’m not much of one for conflating mind and brain, but this is a substantial enough difference that I would expect mind-level differences.

  4. Unless it’s a very early-acquired 2nd language (ie, true bilingualism), then the circuitry is necessarily going to be very different as the language is in a different part of the brain. I’m not much of a person for conflating mind and brain, but in this case the anatomical differences of language storage are so different that there MUST be psychological differences.

  5. I speak 5 languages with varying degrees of fluency. Warren is correct that there are different biases and values that one tends to assume to some degree in switching between languages. Some of this has to do with how ideas are typically expressed in a given language and the connotations embedded in words involved in the decision-making process. But IME much more has to do with the values and realities of the *culture* associated with the language. (I’m much more aggressive–if no less skeptical–in making decisions when operating in Chinese than in French, for example, because life in China requires it, while extensive, discursive analysis is normative in France.)

  6. 🙂 Lots of follow up studies there, all needing to be replicated! I like bubbarich’s points about the necessary differences in neural substrate of formulation and deciding “in” the later learned language and LC’s cultural caveat as well.

    When I was temporarily a Hebrew speaker I was also markedly more assertive than my (then) quiet English self. That raises the question though of what constitutes a decision in the original study.

    Does it make sense to talk of character-free decisions? Mind/Brain again, bubbarich?

    1. I don’t know about that, Simon. I’m moderately fluent in Finnish, but I was in my 20s when I learned it. My personality is slightly different in Finnish, because of the social contexts and societies I learned the languages in. I also sense a psychological effect from feeling slightly more emotionally distant in Finnish.

  7. Gosh…obvious really, now that I think about it, but I’d never imagined that other people also think in their second/other languages for problem-solving purposes.

    I’ve done this for years – used Spanish instead of my native English to describe and frame a problem that was proving tricky in English.

    For me, it works quite well partly because of the need to be more deliberate in vocabulary and partly because Spanish seems to access another element of my personality in a counterbalancing way that also adds new twists or perspectives.

    I’m sure there are other aspects, as the authors of this study indicate, that play a role in the variances between decision-making. The imagined/silent audience is one. I’m usually more conscious of this ‘audience’ in Spanish than I am in English.

  8. Surprising. I always thought of biases as language independent. When does a language ceases to remain foreign?

    1. Andy, I’ve long thought (based on personal experience) that cognition is built on language. This is more evidence for this.

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