Would you take a bet that offered you an even chance of winning $12 and losing $10? If you’re like most people, you would not. But what if someone offered you the bet in French? New research in the journal Psychological Science suggests that, assuming you understand French, you would.
What is going on here? The explanation is not—as a France-bashing wag might suggest—that it’s always good to bet against the French. The same effect appears when wagers are presented in Japanese, Spanish—even English, if it’s a person’s second language. Instead, says Boaz Keysar, a University of Chicago psychologist and the paper’s lead author, thinking in a non-native language seems to make people more rational.
Over the past decade, the growing field of behavioral economics has shown all the ways that human beings don’t act the way traditional economics says they should. We have an aversion to loss that leads us to avoid certain kinds of smart bets (like the one above) even as we take other, foolish ones, or to stick with the status quo even when we have something to gain by changing it. And we privilege the present over the future, a tendency that has real ramifications in the financial decisions of people and governments alike. A big part of the problem is that our gut instincts can be tripped up by certain sorts of questions about probability. In one example, most people would choose a medicine that they were told will save the lives of 200,000 people out of 600,000, rather than a medicine that will allow 400,000 people out of 600,000 to die, even though the number of lives saved is the same.
So how does French or Japanese or Spanish help? One would think that having to puzzle out a question in a foreign language would make people more likely to foul up the answer. Not so, say Keysar and his co-authors. Cognitive biases such as loss aversion are deeply emotional responses, and understanding a second language requires conscious thought in a way that processing our native tongue doesn’t. Because we have to think more to make sense of the question when it’s in a foreign language, we automatically think carefully about the answer—we don’t just answer based on our cognitive biases. “A foreign language is like a distancing mechanism,” says Keysar. “It’s almost like you’re a slightly different person. You’re removed from yourself.” Interestingly, other researchers have found that you can get a similar effect by writing a question not in a different language but just in a difficult-to-read font.
Asked how people might put his findings to use, Keysar says it’s too early for recommendations to inoculate people against making silly mistakes. Thinking through things in a second language, then comparing the answer to what someone else comes up with in his native language, is one idea. Not everyone has a second language to use, though, and for those people there are other distancing mechanisms: Phrase a question so it describes something in the distant future, or write it in a font that a reader has to puzzle over.
Keysar emphasizes he’s not arguing that distancing people from the questions they’re considering will always lead to better decisions. On the contrary, a large body of experimental evidence shows that emotions are immensely valuable in making good decisions—that gut instincts derive from hard-earned experience and are ignored at our peril.
The trick, then, is to figure out which questions are best considered in the fumbling cadences of our second language and which can be entrusted to our mother tongue.
Bennett is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.