A new study shows that “magical thinking” can be reduced by presenting and processing information in a second language.
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.
What does Robert Sapolsky—an "utter, complete, atheist"—think about the persistence of magical thinking in our modern world?
Of all the strange things that humans have come up with, almost none is stranger—nor more pervasive across separate cultures—than religion. Why this meta-magical thinking evolved is easy to understand in hindsight: Robert Sapolsky calls it a "wonderful mechanism" that our ancestors used to cope with forces of nature, tragedies, and good luck that they couldn't explain. And even in the presence of explanations today, it continues to be useful for the majority of humans, to the point that asking "Why do so many people still believe?" is not the most interesting question in the vicinity. Sapolsky would rather ask: "What’s up with the five percent of atheists who don’t?" The only thing crazier than religion might be atheism, he suggests. There's a solid catalog of literature that shows the health benefits of religiosity. It's nature's antidepressant for what is often a brutal and awful world, and offers a protective quality that atheists forfeit—which explains why incidences of depression are much higher in that group. To Sapolsky, what's more curious than the bizarre need to believe, is the choice not to.
One of the lesser-discussed but potentially most disastrous appointments is in education: Betsy DeVos. Her anti-intellectual agenda would take root in the nation's youngest minds, filtering down through descendant generations.
Richard Hofstadter is in vogue. Since Donald Trump’s ascension the term ‘anti-intellectualism’ has been used endlessly, in part thanks to the President's announcement that, “I love the poorly educated.”
Hofstadter’s work is more nuanced, of course. He recognized intellectual appreciation is cyclical, dependent upon cultural forces. Obama has been derided as professorial, a quality many other Americans appreciate; journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates recently expressed awe over just how intelligent a mind he has. With Trump we’ve entered a new (or old) phase of the cycle.
This can be witnessed in his cabinet appointments. A secretary of state with questionable economic ties to oppressive regimes; a secretary of energy who wants to abolish that agency (if he could only remember its name); a labor secretary who disdains higher minimum wages but loves carnivorous women in bikinis; a climate change skeptic running the EPA.
One of the lesser-discussed but potentially most disastrous confirmations is in education. Betsy DeVos criticized Trump and even raised funds for other GOP candidates, but she fits perfectly into the ‘poorly educated’ narrative. Like other picks she wants to shrink the agency she’s being put in charge of by handing over power to state and local agencies while promoting school vouchers.
The voucher program supports free-market competition, a running theme in the coming administration. For example, Jim O’Neill, a potential pick to run the FDA, has stated that the government needs less oversight and fewer clinical trials; he claims the market will figure it out. DeVos toes a similar line in education. She plans on breaking up the “government-run monopoly” public school system in favor of private, charter, and—we can argue, especially—religious school training.
DeVos and her husband, Dick, are billionaires with a strong belief in Christianity—she once stated that school choice will “advance God’s kingdom.” They’ve argued public schools have “displaced” the church in American life. As an activist DeVos has made it her mission to undermine the system through vouchers, shepherding young minds into schools that aren’t subject to that inconvenient First Amendment.
In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter reminds readers that religion is not inherently opposed to education. In fact intellectual life flourished due to Protestantism in the 18th and 19th centuries—the same church DeVos was brought up in. But oh, how religions change. What happened was not purely American, Hofstadter argues, but a natural consequence of intellectual development in religious communities. A fracture between “mind and heart” started the slow dissolution of intellectual pursuits.
Long before America was discovered, the Christian community was perennially divided between those who believed the intellect must have a vital place in religion and those who believed that intellect should be subordinated to emotion, or in effect abandoned at the dictates of emotion.
As the country grew and tribes splintered the race for a pure Christianity commenced. As enthusiasm for boisterous new movements evolved the “learned professional clergy suffered a loss of position.” Rational religion, Hofstadter argues, declined as citizens relied more on their reptilian paralimbic survival mechanism: my way or no way.
Let’s consider Hofstadter’s sentiment in light of a more current understanding of neuroscience. No matter how logical a thinker one might be, our brains are designed to respond to our environment quickly and accordingly, meaning emotional reactions always occur first. There are techniques (such as meditation) that strengthen the resolve between the paralimbic system and the prefrontal cortex, the reasoning portion of the brain. This means you’re able to feel an emotional response but not immediately lash out in fear, disdain, or hatred. You’re able to see many sides of an argument without always defaulting to your own.
The problem is this process requires an education to understand. By appealing to and championing emotions over all else—by espousing a specific religious ideology, for example—people like DeVos short-circuit the slow and arduous process of critical thought necessary to differentiate between imagination and reality. They believe their way is the way. Once that happens silencing your opposition is easy. You have made yourself believe you have a divine mandate, which trumps all earthly rationality. Education becomes secondary to allegiance to that belief. And if education contradicts or stifles that belief, it must be eradicated at all costs.
That’s a dangerous mindset in an ailing public school system. American education is the most expensive in the world, yet recent results are lackluster; we currently rank fourteenth in the world. Since 90 percent of private schools are associated with a religious group, DeVos’s ‘choice’ is really not one at all. She’ll be attempting to indoctrinate broad swaths of children into a system that teaches a particular way of viewing the world, one that is more emotional, less rational, and in accordance to what she believes.
We call cities bubbles, but so are nations. America is the only developed country besides Australia with elected officials who deny climate change. Some of those same figures give credence to creationism. It’s hard to take seriously men and women spouting such ridiculous ideas, yet their prominent positions of power afford them the ability to legislate. That’s only going to get worse with the coming administration.
DeVos is right on one thing: public schools are in trouble. Not only do we need to focus more on science and math, especially as the latter discipline pertains to critical thinking in statistics (so we’ll stop believing biased polls and research, as well as fake news), we need a stronger appreciation of and education in the arts, fitness, nutrition, and sexuality. Growing legions of under-cultured brains do not make for a sound cultural mind. While it’s wonderful that six-year-olds can develop apps, learning how to treat your partner and respecting other cultures is equally if not more important in the larger scope of life.
Overlooking Betsy DeVos is dangerous. She has an agenda, one that will accomplish the worst fate of all: turning the clock back centuries on young minds through magical and biased thinking.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.