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Making a big decision? Consider it in a foreign language

A study published in Psychological Science says thinking in a second language “provides greater cognitive and emotional distance”.

Image: _hlian via Flickr

Updated, 17:03

IF YOU HAVEN’T decided yet how you’re planning to vote on the Fiscal Compact, here’s an unusual proposal for you: make your decision in Irish, or another language other than your mother tongue.

A new study published in an American academic journal suggests that making a decision while thinking in a foreign language can help reduce decision biases and removes the ‘framing effect’ which can cause people to answer the same question differently if it is phrased in another way.

The paper, from University of Chicago psychology professor Boaz Keysar, show using four experiments 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,” he writes, “they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language.”

The paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, concludes that this is because the subject shows a greater “cognitive and emotional distance” when they are considering a question in a language other than their own.

Wired.com explains that human thought is largely broken down into two types: one which is deliberate and methodical, and one which is faster – almost subconscious – and emotionally charged.

It supposes that the increased analytical thought required when considering a question in another language – where the brain is preoccupied by translating the problem – forces them to deliberate on the issue itself and divorce the question from the wording used to pose it.

It also explains a legendary experiment to explain the ‘framing effect’ which can be removed by considering the problem in a language other than your own.

Say there are 600 people infected with a serious disease, and you have two options. One will save the lives of 200 of them; the other has a 33 per cent chance of saving everyone, but a 67 per cent of seeing everyone die.

Most people are likely to choose option A – even though both scenarios are likely to save the same number of lives – simply because it seems less ‘risky’.

However, when presented with a pair of options which have identical effects but are differently worded, people are likely to change their resopnse.

If given an option C, where 400 people die, and option D where there is a 33 per cent that nobody dies and a 67 per cent change that everyone does, more people choose option D.

This is because the language used in option A is different from that used in C: both options still result in 200 survivors and 400 fatalities. People are more likely to choose A, however, because it emphasises the number of survivors rather than deaths, as C does.

[Author's note: Thanks to Buffy and Sharon in the comments for setting me right.]

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