Home > Determinism, Philosophy of Science > Rationality and Thinking in Foreign Languages

Rationality and Thinking in Foreign Languages

According to a recent study, decisions reached while thinking in a “foreign” i.e. non-native language are more likely to be rational.

From the abstract:

Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears 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.

For those unaware, the framing effect is a cognitive bias in psychology wherein a person’s choice or response to a question changes depending on how the same question is worded. This is often the case when one framing highlights losses and another highlights gains. This article over at Wired describes the above study as well as an experiment in which exemplifies the framing effect.

99 Cents and Up

"Oddly the effect doesn't hold true for grammar and translation..."
(Photo courtesy of http://www.engrish.com)

Important to note about framing effect experiments is that they most often, and necessarily, compare two identical choices phrased differently. So, where one description frames the decision in terms of  A: a loss and B: a gain, the other will describe an identical scenario with C: a gain and D: a loss. In this way, as the subject study indicates, considering the choice in a  foreign language appears to disable or bypass the aspect of our decision-making process which can lead to inconsistent decision-making or being swayed by phrasing rather than rational deliberation.

The framing effect is, in my mind, akin to a number of other biases which are known to exist. For example, when temperatures are manipulated during experiment conditions, a subject’s perception of others or desire to be generous rather than selfish appears to be influenced. In this set of studies the temperature of an object the subjects were asked to hold correlated with their feelings about other people or their desire to help others. When asked to hold a warm object, subjects were more likely to use positive adjectives to describe others or choose to assist them versus themselves than those holding cold objects.

What these studies highlight is not only the care with which we must conduct studies but also how environmental determinants can lead us to behave differently than we might otherwise.

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