Thinking in a Foreign Language

by Venkat on April 26, 2012

This is an idea that simply refuses to go away. Ever since the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and its debunking in the original naive form, the idea that language shapes thought keeps popping up. Now the behavioral economists weigh in to show that decision-making changes when you switch languages. The research is reported in a Wired article, Thinking in a Foreign Language

This looks like it is primarily about the mere fact of shifting gears to a different language causing greater deliberation. But I strongly suspect there are going to be patterns related to mental model construction and use in the to and from languages as well (i.e., specific ordered language pairs, (A, B), will likely have measurable and characteristic effects on the nature of decision-making).

You’d need more subtle tests for that though.

The researchers next tested how language affected decisions on matters of direct personal import. According to prospect theory, the possibility of small losses outweigh the promise of larger gains, a phenomenon called myopic risk aversion and rooted in emotional reactions to the idea of loss.

The same group of Korean students was presented with a series of hypothetical low-loss, high-gain bets. When offered bets in Korean, just 57 percent took them. When offered in English, that number rose to 67 percent, again suggesting heightened deliberation in a second language.

To see if the effect held up in real-world betting, Keysar’s team recruited 54 University of Chicago students who spoke Spanish as a second language. Each received $15 in $1 bills, each of which could be kept or bet on a coin toss. If they lost a toss, they’d lose the dollar, but winning returned the dollar and another $1.50 — a proposition that, over multiple bets, would likely be profitable.

When the proceedings were conducted in English, just 54 percent of students took the bets, a number that rose to 71 percent when betting in Spanish. “They take more bets in a foreign language because they expect to gain in the long run, and are less affected by the typically exaggerated aversion to losses,” wrote Keysar and colleagues.

The researchers believe a second language provides a useful cognitive distance from automatic processes, promoting analytical thought and reducing unthinking, emotional reaction.



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