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Second Language Decisions
May 2, 2012 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on Second Language Decisions

For those tough decisions, thinking outside your native language will lead to better results, say researchers. New evidence suggests that thinking in a second language helps to filter out the deep-seated unconscious bias that we normally use to make our mostly bad decisions. I should disclose that I consider myself an expert on bad decisions, having made so many myself over the years. Granted, I’m right about half the time, but only because half the time I’m right it’s for the wrong reason. But like my Daddy used to say, the important thing is to just pin the damn donkey, don’t matter where.

OK, that’s enough made-up folksy wisdom. Let’s get to the science.

Boaz Keysar and team of the University of Chicago have published a paper “Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases,” which examines how language shapes the thinking behind the choices we make.

Bias is the thinking we do without a thought, the kind of background snap-decision making that short-cuts rational thought pretty much all the time.

Turns out that all that “left brain, right brain” nonsense is just so much wishful thinking. It’s comforting I suppose for us to think of our thinking as if it is somehow a matter of choice, or a trait, and not almost exclusively a mindless morass of emotions and knee-jerk reactions that delineate our experience, and, which can only be overridden by the intense and unsustainable effort of rational thought. Brandon Keim writes in Wired, “Psychologists say human reasoning is shaped by two distinct modes of thought: one that’s systematic, analytical and cognition-intensive, and another that’s fast, unconscious and emotionally charged.” (Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the King of prospect theory, offers a great summary of research on how fast-thinking bias shapes human decision-making.

Keysar and his researchers wanted to know if the mental calisthenics required for thinking in a second, non-native,  language would deny people the extra cognitive juice they need to get beyond  quick-and-dirty cognition to make rational slow-thought decisions, of if foreign language mental gymnastics would provide the elevated mental tone needed for the mental exercise of intense cognitive analysis.

They decided to test for the loss aversion bias, which is the human preference for avoiding loss over  acquiring gains, which makes us apt to risk more to avoid loss, and to risk less when considering a gain, even when the numbers would favor the opposite choice.  “It’s a gut-level human predisposition, and if second-language thinking made people think less systematically, Keysar’s team supposed the tendency would be magnified. Conversely, if second-language thinking promoted deliberation, the tendency would be diminished.”

In a series of four experiments the researchers were able to demonstrate that the effects of unconscious bias are sharply modified  “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.”

Rings true for my second-language experience. When I was a language teacher, I was always impressed and a little intimidated by the close attention my students brought to their conversations. Each thought, hard-won in a second language, was thus more valuable to the second-language speaker,  gave them an edge as sharp as a tack. Well, most of them, at any rate. Teachers know know that not every tool in the shed is sharp, even in the garden of second-language acquisition.

Looking forward to slow thinking from readers on this. But fast will do, too. It always does…

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