Second Language Decisions

by Translation Guy on May 2, 2012

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…


  1. I haven’t read the actual study, but the abstract says USE of foreign language and not THINK in foreign language. Otherwise I find it very intriguing on how they controlled for what language people were using when they were thinking in the experiment.

    • Ken says:

      The floor language, the one in use during the testing is considered the thinking language

  2. Wy wife is multilingual and we speak primarily in her 3rd language. She is very level headed and I must admit she usually makes the best decision, and quickly. Since I don’t have a good grasp on her native tongue, I can’t really compare how she thinks in it, but her abilities go along with the study.

  3. If this is the case, all of my kids are signed up for foreign language class by the weekend.

  4. Phil Jeidels says:

    I think a lot slower in my second language. I tend to second guess myself, so maybe that would help me make better decisions?

    • Ken says:

      I guess the answer to that would depend on the language you are thinking in now.

  5. I’m thinking the guy in the picture isn’t bilingual? (As most people with bad tattoos most likely are not(according to data in the study).

  6. Does it really matter? Who would you rather hire…a local guy who is really good with the language but occasionaly makes poor decisions or someone who made fewer poor decisions but struggles with the language?

    • Ken says:

      None of the above?

  7. If there is a correlation, it has to be with the speed at which we process the language and just how long we have been fluent in it. If I were to speak a second language at age 5, by the time I was grown I would most likely have just as many biases in both languages.

  8. I don’t buy it. I have to speak in my second language everyday and I have just as many bad decisions as when I am home with the family. I think that often times it may be the people you are around that influence decisions.

  9. Not only is the tattoo in the picture a bad decision, but so is the location. For anyone to see it he has to go around without his shirt off. I just don’t see him getting much service at the local 7-11.

  10. Jennifer B. says:

    My biggest problem with using social media is that I don’t know where I should draw the line when it comes to free advice. That is how I make money and if I keep putting things in blogs and ebooks, then how many potential customers am I losing?

  11. Semi Jevtic says:

    Were these people in the study in normal situations? i.e. home and work and social things? I would imagine these would have a large influence how what or how someone decides something. Such as whether or not to use foul language. At home with no kids around, comes right out. Kids around or at work, never comes out. All situations are with the same language.

    • Ken says:

      The study was kept as simple as possible to remove variables such as register and context. Reductionist empiricism to model chaotic reality? If there’s a grant in there soemwhere, why not?

  12. I speak primarily in my native tongue and do most of my processing of my second and thrid languages in my head. I don’t use them as much verbally as I did when I was living in those countries, but I do read and watch movies in those languages often. Even though I would consider myself fluent in both non-native languages, I often found myself spending more time making decisions when using those languages. I guess I either wasn’t as confident in them and I had to think carefully before acting, or I just didn’t want to get into trouble in a foriegn land.

  13. My son makes tons of bad decisions. He’s only 9 years old and doesn’t speak a second language. However, I don’t think he is old enough for the unconsious bias to influence his decision making. I think that sometimes we are just wired to act on the first thing that comes into our brain and, unfortunately, it’s the wrong thing to do.

    • Ken says:

      Current research on the lack of free-will in our thought process is just chilling. I try not to think about it.

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