Beyond Words - Language Blog

Can Thinking in a Foreign Language Reduce Our Decision-Making Biases?

A gamble in one language could be an opportunity in another. In a recently published study, psychologists at the University of Chicago examined what happened when participants in a series of experiments weighed their odds in high-risk situations, like profit and loss, in a language other than their native tongue. During one experiment, a group of native English speakers who were also proficient in Spanish completed a betting game as follows:

According to the press release:

Each participant received $15 in dollar bills, from which they took $1 for each bet. They could either keep the dollar or risk it for the possibility of getting an extra $1.50 if they won a coin toss. So in each round, they could net $2.50 if they won the toss, or get nothing if they lost. The bets were attractive because statistically, the students stood to come out ahead if they took all 15 bets.

Those who talked through their decision in English were less likely to up the ante – that group only took the bets 54 percent of the time, compared with 71 percent in the Spanish-speaking group. In another experiment involving native speakers of English, Korean, French, Spanish, and Japanese, participants more often avoided taking risks when speaking in the languages they first learned.

Another hypothetical experiment put the lives of several thousand imaginary people into the hands of the unsuspecting participants. Researchers put forth scenarios in both the participants’ native language and in a foreign language. In the first scenario:

There’s a disease epidemic sweeping through the country, and without medicine, 600,000 people will die. You have to choose one of two medicines to make:
If you choose medicine A, 200,000 people will be saved. If you choose medicine B, there is a 1/3 chance of saving 600,000 people and a 2/3 of saving no one. Which medicine do you choose?

Researchers were correct in hypothesizing that most people would choose option A, which clearly states that people would be saved. Framed a little differently, and with a little more risk involved, participants were also given the following situation:

“If you choose medicine A, 400,000 people will die. If you choose medicine B, there is a 1/3 chance of saving 600,000 people and a 2/3 of saving no one. Which medicine do you choose?”

The distinct wording of the second question – that people would be killed if they selected medicine A – made medicine A less appealing in the native language. The two scenarios can both ultimately save 200,000 people. Only when asked in a foreign language did participants act rationally, realizing the truth in the numbers and choosing to spare the lives of the same amount of people as in the first medical crisis.

As this study aimed to show, a person’s first language is also their most emotional language. Psychologists called the foreign-language decisions more “rational,” due to the fact that they could more easily omit their fear of losing money (or lives) from their decision. Cognitive bias – a preference for making judgments based on past experiences, despite current evidence – is our brain’s first line of defense in decision-making.

A reason behind cognitive bias in a first language could be that our thoughts flow more freely than when trying to speak in another language. An emotional response to a certain phrase is immediate. In a second (third, fourth…) language, our instincts are less keen, and past biases – which are likely stored in the first language – are more difficult to access, and instead the facts about the task at hand are given priority. This mental block could cause the thinker to take into account only the factors that are of immediate consideration – not emotions. Being less emotional about a decision means we won’t necessarily use our gut instincts, which can sometimes be right. Still, researchers believe this study reveals that there are ways around our often hindering cognitive biases.


Photograph by robertcarag