April 26, 2012
Think In A Foreign Language To Make Better Decisions

Those who have read Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast And Slow will not find these results surprising: Thinking in a foreign language causes people to make better decisions. The need to think more deliberately (with the brain's system 2 in Kahneman's book) when thinking with a foreign language leads to more rational decisions.

In a study with implications for businesspeople in a global economy, researchers at the University of Chicago have found that people make more rational decisions when they think through a problem in a non-native tongue.

People are more likely to take favorable risks if they think in a foreign language, the new study showed. "We know from previous research that because people are naturally loss-averse, they often forgo attractive opportunities," said UChicago psychologist Boaz Keysar, a leading expert on communication. "Our new findings demonstrate that such aversion to losses is much reduced when people make decisions in their non-native language."

"A foreign language provides a distancing mechanism that moves people from the immediate intuitive system to a more deliberate mode of thinking," wrote Keysar, professor of psychology at UChicago, in the paper, "The Foreign Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases." The paper, which appears in the current issue of Psychological Science, was co-authored by UChicago graduate students Sayuri Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An.

Most of us do not know foreign languages. Most of those who do will rarely get problems presented to them in non-native languages. So what other techniques could be used to cause more rational decision-making? How to kick the more rational part of your mind into action when the results most matter?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2012 April 26 11:16 PM  Brain Economics


Comments
PacRim Jim said at April 27, 2012 1:37 AM:

In the event of a critical decision that requires immediate attention, it's a come-as-you-are affair.
If not, write the problem down to make sure you have identified exactly what it is.
Then run away.

Peter A said at April 27, 2012 1:54 AM:

Most German, Dutch, French, etc. businessmen use English as a matter of course and make decisions in English, their second language. If Kahneman is right then US Companies should try to hire more European executives. As always, Americans will be screwed.

Michael L said at April 27, 2012 4:05 AM:

some people tend to think rationally and others do not. This principle is much more fundamental than the secondary effects having to do with what language you are using or what music you listen to on the way to the office.

Now, what does the popularity of the word "EQ" in business literature tell us about people who are making essential decisions that shape the world for us? The solution is not to switch languages, it is to "switch" people who think that if they got into position of power via reasoning mechanisms behind the "schmoozing" skill they can continue to rely on such types of thinking in actually doing the job. A monkey can excel at impressing other monkeys, but don't expect it to make rational decisions.

Kai Jones said at April 27, 2012 8:23 AM:

I wonder if the second language effect can be replicated by using a non-verbal sense. What about people who sketch while they think, or people who talk with their hands (or their whole bodies)? What about singing your decision-making? Is this just about occupying the brain with different tasks to minimize sense of risk?

Randall Parker said at April 30, 2012 10:11 PM:

Michael L,

The people who do not invoke Kahneman's system 2 often enough need every help they can get to spend more time exercising their rational thinking faculties.

Kai Jones,

I think there are many ways to stimulate the mind to think more rationally. Kahneman provides examples in his book. You can probably invoke rational thoughts in others by speaking so quietly that people have to strain to hear. Anything that makes people concentrate will do the trick.

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