A surprising study shows how your brain may process information differently.
Suppose you were about to bet on a sporting event, like this weekend’s Super Bowl. Before making the decision if you should bet on the Philadelphia Eagles or the New England Patriots, would it make a difference if you were given each team’s stats in English or another language you happen to know?
You would think not, as the information you’re receiving is basically the same. But researchers have found that people make more deliberate and careful decisions when it’s being done in a foreign language. Why? Because having to think in another language requires more cognitive power. And by having to think it through more thoroughly, you’re more likely to make a rational decision.
The research – which looked at a wide range of issues including moral dilemmas and workplace issues – was led by Boaz Keysar. The Israel-born professor, who studied at Hebrew University and Princeton, is now the chair of the Cognition Program at the University of Chicago. “It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic,” he explained. “We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases.”
Added his colleague Sayuri L. Hayakawa: “Your native language is acquired from your family, from your friends, from television. It becomes infused with all these emotions.”
Keysar’s goal was to tie all this research together. “I knew about the findings that people are less connected emotionally in their foreign language, and also knew about research in decision-making that shows that emotional reactions make us biased,” he said. “Somehow I connected the two and that got me thinking maybe that would lead people to make decisions differently in a foreign language.” Previous research has shown that bilingual people are also faster thinkers.
Students in Keysar’s lab recently released a new study which takes these findings a step further. They discovered that describing certain foods in a foreign language reduces our aversion to them. For example, if people knew they were being served snails, they might flinch. But when a restaurant puts the term “escargot” on the menu, the dish seems more palatable.
Keysar is next interested in looking at whether language can be usefully considered in decisions made by doctors speaking a foreign language. “You might be able to predict differences in medical decision-making depending on the language that you use,” he said. “In some cases you might prefer a stronger emotional engagement, in some you might not.”
Keysar’s work on perception and bias is rooted in the research of fellow Israeli Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002. Kahneman, who served as a mentor to famed behavioral economist Dan Ariely, was also the subject of a bestselling book by Michael Lewis last year.
Ok, so now we know how foreign languages can impact our decision-making process. But, um, what about sexy accents?