How Thinking in a Foreign Language Reduces Superstitious Belief

A new study shows that “magical thinking” can be reduced by presenting and processing information in a second language.

Photo: Ciocci via Flickr (flickr.com/photos/ciocci)

Superstition is everywhere in our modern lives. Each Friday the 13th, nearly a billion dollars in business is avoided because people are afraid that it will be bad luck to do it that day. In the United Kingdom, traffic accidents increase dramatically on the same day, despite less traffic overall. Even for those of us who consider ourselves rational people, the effects of superstition can still hinder us. We know we have nothing to fear, but fear it anyway.


 

 

A new study shows us a way to bypass that part of our mind that worries about black cats and broken mirrors: speak in another language.

In one part of the study, Italian volunteers who were proficient in the German or English languages were asked to read about an event associated with bad luck, such as a breaking a mirror or walking under a ladder. They were then asked to rate how the event in the story made them feel, and how strongly it affected them.

While the scenario invoked negative feelings in nearly all of the subjects, the ones who read it in a foreign language noted a reduced level of negative feeling compared to those who read it in their native tongue.

The study was repeated with other languages to see if the effect also existed for events with a positive connotation, such as finding a four-leaf clover. Similar results were found, with the same reduction in the intensity of mood changes for those who read it in a foreign language. The effect held for all demographics studied, and the authors took steps to assure the readers would not misunderstand the texts and give false positives.

This study suggests that tendencies to “magical thinking” can be reduced by presenting and processing information in a second language. While it does not remove these tendencies, as the subjects still showed both positive and negative responses to certain phenomena, it was starkly reduced in every case. It supports the findings of previous studies that suggest memories are partly tied to the language they are made in, and adds evidence to the hypothesis that the part of the brain that processes information in a second language is more rational than the part that works in our native language.

Weird. What else happens to me if I do my thinking in a foreign language?

The authors of this study point out that other research has shown that people will make different choices when speaking a second language than when speaking in their native tongue. They are more willing to sacrifice a stranger to save five other people, will spend more time discussing embarrassing topics, are more tolerant of harmful behaviors, and more permissive of helpful behavior that has dubious motives. In all, they are more rational.

But, why would the choice of language have such an effect on behavior? 

The authors of the study suggest that the part of our brains that processes our native language is more intuitive and less rational than the parts that focus on new languages. This idea, that our linguistic choices can have such an effect on our rationality, can be a little off-putting for those of us who like to suppose ourselves as rational people.

So, what can I do with this information?

The findings could have implications for language study and the neuroscience of how our brains process language. It might also be used to advantage in diplomacy and business, with negotiators selecting a language that will most benefit their rationality. It also means that next time you see a black cat crossing your path, you might do better to disregard it in a second language than try to shrug it off in your first.

 

 

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

What the world will look like in the year 250,002,018

This is what the world will look like, 250 million years from now

On Pangaea Proxima, Lagos will be north of New York, and Cape Town close to Mexico City
Surprising Science

To us humans, the shape and location of oceans and continents seems fixed. But that's only because our lives are so short.

Keep reading Show less

Why we must teach students to solve big problems

The future of education and work will rely on teaching students deeper problem-solving skills.

Future of Learning
  • Asking kids 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' is a question that used to make sense, says Jaime Casap. But it not longer does; the nature of automation and artificial intelligence means future jobs are likely to shift and reform many times over.
  • Instead, educators should foster a culture of problem solving. Ask children: What problem do you want to solve? And what talents or passions do you have that can be the avenues by which you solve it?
  • "[T]he future of education starts on Monday and then Tuesday and then Wednesday and it's constant and consistent and it's always growing, always improving, and if we create that culture I think that would bring us a long way," Casap says.
Keep reading Show less

Allosaurus dabbled in cannibalism according to new fossil evidence

These Jurassic predators resorted to cannibalism when hit with hard times, according to a deliciously rare discovery.

Fig 3. Shed lateral tooth of Allosaurus sp. (MWC 5011) found at the Mygatt-Moore Quarry, white arrow indicates the distal denticles.

Stephanie K. Drumheller et.al
Surprising Science
  • Rare fossil evidence of dinosaur cannibalism among the Allosaurus has been discovered.
  • Scientists analyzed dinosaur bones found in the Mygatt-Moore Quarry in western Colorado, paying special attention to bite marks that were present on 2,368 of the bones.
  • It's likely that the predatory carnivore only ate their already-dead peers during times when resources were scarce.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…