Need to Make a Decision? Use Your Second Language

Groucho Marx famously said, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well, I have others.” Maybe what he had was a second language because a recent study, conducted by the research group headed by Dr. Albert Costa at the the Universitat de Pompeu Fabra’s Center of Brain and Cognition (Barcelona), shows that decisions made in a second language are less intuitive and more rational than decisions made in a person’s native language.

Foreign Language Affects Loss Aversion    

The mental bias known as loss aversion means that we tend to reject an outcome when it is expressed in a way that emphasizes loss, yet we accept it in the opposite case. For example, people are more likely to buy tickets for their kids’ school raffle if they are told there will be three winners out of a hundred, rather than being told the raffle will leave ninety-seven little boys and girls crying. If Costa’s theory about the foreign language effect on decision-making is correct, people should be able to come to a more rational conclusion after giving the choice some thought in a second language.

The Elsberg Paradox    

Imagine a test in which participants are offered a reward if they pick the right chip, red or black, out of a jar. The Elsberg Paradox refers to the fact that people prefer to try their luck from a jar where they are told the ratio of black to red chips – fifty-fifty, for example – as compared with a jar where the amount is unknown. The bias here is based on perceived uncertainty, so once again Costa’s team investigated whether thinking in a foreign language would impact the decision-making process. Again, they found that biases disappeared when a person was confronted with a decision in their foreign language.

Unemotional Tasks

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? If an emotional element is to blame for the logical bias presented in our earlier examples, then the effect of the second language shouldn’t be present in a test like this one that requires deliberate, unemotional, and unbiased thought. And this is exactly what the researchers of the Universitat de Pompeu Fabra managed to assess. The results in the cognitive reflection test were similar regardless of the language in which the participants completed the task.

The Foreign Language Effect

Through these experiments and others, it’s clear that a person’s decision-making is affected by the language in which a given problem is presented. Some undertakings are infused with an emotional charge, like when buying tickets for a child’s raffle or picking chips from a jar, and these naturally trigger intuitive answers. But the language employed seems to correlate with the intensity of the emotions, and so the use of a foreign language leads to a more rational thought-process precisely because the emotional factor decreases. There is, in effect, more distance between the person and the question when the person’s native tongue is removed from the equation.

Indeed, it seems that a second language would have made Groucho more judicious, so we can be thankful that he stuck to English – making us all laugh in the process!

Photo credit: Center for Brain and Cognition, Universitat de Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona)

About Carlos Garcia-Arista

I am a native Spanish translator based in Barcelona, Spain. I have degrees in journalism and Spanish philology. I also work as a freelance writer.