Our primary language is one rooted in emotion, and so our decisions are heavily influenced by the emotions surrounding the words we read or hear. Sian Beilock, PhD, author of Choke, points to a study that demonstrates how thinking and speaking in a foreign language can remove that bis and help us make more rational choices.
Image: Denis Babenko (Shutterstock).
Participants were given a common scenario in decision making studies: they had to choose a medicine that will definitely save 200,000 lives or one that has a small chance of saving 600,000 and a greater chance of saving no one at all. To some, the question was phrased similarly to how I just worded it — meaning lives would be saved. To others, a more negative wording was used, telling participants the percentage of deaths instead. Even though the exact same information was presented, participants were more often willing to try the risky medicine when it was worded in a positive way. This isn't new information, but what's especially interesting is that when the same information was presented in a foreign language, people made more rational choices. Here's why:
When people make decisions in a foreign language, their decisions tend to be less rooted in emotional reactions. Interestingly, speaking a foreign language might come especially in handy when people find themselves having to make a high-stakes decision — say about savings or investments. When we feel pressure, this anxiety often compromises the functioning of our prefrontal cortex, the very seed of the conscious processes that help with deliberate, analytical decision making.
Under stress, then, we tend to revert to our gut feelings or emotions to drive decisions (and not necessarily for the better). What this new research suggests is that problem solving in a foreign tongue might actually help guard against biased decision making by pushing us back to our more analytical and systematic reasoning abilities instead.
The takeaway is pretty straightforward: if you need to make an important decision and you want to consider it rationally, don't use your native tongue. It appears that your brain won't bother with emotions if it's busy translating.
Speaking a Foreign Language Reduces Decision Biases [Psychology Today]