Study: Decisions Made in a Foreign Language Are More Rational
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
Struggling with a foreign language is practically the definition of mental strain: what is the word for "screwdriver" again? did I produce that "ĥ" sound correctly? are they laughing with me or at me? And mental strain, according to post-rational theories of the mind, has consequences for how we think. But what consequences? Maybe (1) the extra work of a foreign tongue makes people more reliant on unconscious, automatic mental processes (since they used up their conscious reasoning power trying to remember the ablative-honorific form for postcard). On the other hand, maybe (2) the conscious and deliberate effort required by the foreign tongue brings the subject of the words into conscious focus, making people less reliant on those unconscious mental mechanisms. So which is it? This paper, in the current Psychological Science, offers a nice, clear decision in favor of option 2: People who evaluated risk in a foreign language, it reports, were more rational and accurate than those who worked in their native tongue.
Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa, and Sun Gyu An put 368 students through an exercise devised to neatly separate the workings of what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 (automatic, unconscious, biased) from those of System 2 (the deliberate, conscious attention that you focus when and where you feel the need). System 1 works with a set of rules of thumb that don't align with logic, one of which is a much greater sensitivity to possible losses than to possible gains.
So most people, if they could give an experimental medicine to 600,000 people and be sure to save 200,000, would prefer that option to a different drug that might save everyone but might not work on anyone. (A sure 200,000 saved is better than a potential to save 0.) However, consider that same drug (could save all, could save no one) against a different alternative: A medicine that is sure to leave 400,000 people dead. In that case, people prefer the drug that might save everyone (potential to save 600,000 is better than certain loss of 400,000). That's not logical, because that drug is the same as the one that for sure saves 200,000. But it satisfies System 1's bias against risks that could lead to a loss.
So the two versions of the question (certain life for 200,000 versus certain death for 400,000) can reveal whether a group of people is using System 1 or System 2 to think about the issue. System 2 users, thinking deliberately and consciously, will tend to see that the questions are identical, so answers to either version will tend to be the same. But people leaning on the unconscious System 1 will show a big difference: They'll favor the save-200,000 option much more than the lose-400,000, not noticing that they're the same.
Keysar et al. ran this diagnostic procedure on 368 students in different settings (native English speakers who spoke Japanese as a second language; Koreans who spoke English; and another set of English speakers who had learned French). The results are pretty striking: In all three experiments, people working in their native tongue showed a strong preference for the option that reminded them of lives saved over the one that reminded them of lives lost. But people working in the foreign language didn't distinguish, presumably because they had reasoned it out and saw that they were the same.
All in all, a fine argument for foreign-language learning, and foreign-language use. More immediately, the study seems to help resolve a question where post-rational models seem to clash. At least when it comes to language, it seems the effect of bringing conscious focus to a subject outweighs the effect of adding to the mind's cognitive load.
Keysar, B., Hayakawa, S., & An, S. (2012). The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases Psychological Science, 23 (6), 661-668 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611432178
In a breakthrough for nuclear fusion research, scientists at China's Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) reactor have produced temperatures necessary for nuclear fusion on Earth.
- The EAST reactor was able to heat hydrogen to temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius.
- Nuclear fusion could someday provide the planet with a virtually limitless supply of clean energy.
- Still, scientists have many other obstacles to pass before fusion technology becomes a viable energy source.
Giving our solar system a "slap in the face."
- A stream of galactic debris is hurtling at us, pulling dark matter along with it
- It's traveling so quickly it's been described as a hurricane of dark matter
- Scientists are excited to set their particle detectors at the onslffaught
The 116th Congress is set to break records in term of diversity among its lawmakers, though those changes are coming almost entirely from Democrats.
- Women and nonwhite candidates made record gains in the 2018 midterms.
- In total, almost half of the newly elected Congressional representatives are not white men.
- Those changes come almost entirely from Democrats; Republican members-elect are all white men except for one woman.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.