EBW DISPATCHES: Wisdom & The Foreign-Language Effect with Sayuri Hayakawa

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The EBW Dispatches Series reports the latest developments from the frontline of wisdom research. Key findings are highlighted and illuminated – with a little help from the researchers themselves. The relevant papers can be found at the end of the dispatch.


EBW Dispatches - Wisdom & The Foreign Language Effect


Wisdom & The Foreign-Language Effect

Can speaking in a foreign language actually change the choices we make? If so, we might reasonably expect the greater difficulty involved to result in poorer choices. Not necessarily so, according to a team of researchers at the University of Chicago. In fact, their research suggests quite the opposite – using a foreign language may actually lead to wiser reasoning.


Sayuri Hayakawa is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. For a number of years she has been part of a team investigating the relationship between language and decision-making. In 2016, she was lead author on a paper outlining some of the surprising hidden effects that using a foreign language can have on our assessment of risks and our moral choices. The paper considers firstly the impact of using a foreign language on our decision-making. The author then discuss potential explanations for these effects.

With millions of people worldwide now conducting their lives in their second language, the impact of the research has far-reaching implications.

Welcome to the wisdom of the Foreign-Language Effect.


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Part One – The Effects of Using a Foreign Language on Decision-Making

In the paper Using a Foreign Language Changes Our Choices (2016), Hayakawa and her colleagues Albert Costa, Alice Foucart and Boaz Keysar first reviewed the impact of using a foreign language on decision-making.

They outlined a number of ways in which using a foreign language can have an impact on decision-making, including the following highlights:


Risks are evaluated more consistently when processed in a foreign language.

Utilitarian behaviour is more likely to be endorsed when using a foreign language.


MORE CONSISTENT RISK EVALUATION

Consider how people typically respond to different kinds of risk when using their native tongue:

When faced with making a gain – People prefer a guaranteed win of £10 over an even bet of winning £20 or £0. They avoid the risky bet. They are risk averse.

When faced with making a loss  – People prefer an even bet of losing £20 or £0 rather than a guaranteed loss of £10. They take the risky bet. They are risk seeking.

Now consider framing effects. The same choice can be framed as a gain or a loss, but people’s risk aversion in the domain of gains and risk seeking in the domain of losses still persists.

For example, consider two identical scenarios which are simply labelled differently. People are risk averse when 200 out of 600 people will be saved (a gain) by a medicine but risk seeking when 400 out of 600 people will die (a loss). This is for people using their native language. (For full details click here).

Interestingly, as Hayakawa reports in the paper, this tendency is reduced when people use a foreign language, resulting in a more frame-independent treatment of risk. So, when using a foreign language, people are less likely to be duped by such a framing effect. For foreign language speakers, ‘saving 200 people’ and ‘losing 400 people’ is essentially the same.


Interestingly, as Hayakawa reports in the paper, this tendency is reduced when people use a foreign language, resulting in a more frame-independent treatment of risk.


MORE UTILITARIAN BEHAVIOUR

Utilitarian behaviour refers to actions that lead to the greater good for the greater number. The classic example is of a train headed down a track where it will kill 5 people. You are on a bridge overlooking the scene and can stop the train by pushing a large man off the bridge and on to the tracks below. Do you sacrifice one person to save the 5 others? The utilitarian choice is – Yes, you do.

And that’s exactly what people using a foreign language are more likely to do, when compared to those using their mother tongue. According to the latest research, when ‘moral rules’ (for example, ’cause no harm’) and utilitarian principles conflict, people using a foreign language are more likely to make the utilitarian choice than those using their native language.


According to the latest research, when ‘moral rules’ (for example, ’cause no harm’) and utilitarian principles conflict, people using a foreign language are more likely to make the utilitarian choice than those using their native language.


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Part Two – Potential Processes Responsible for The Foreign-Language Effect

Having outlined some of the effects that using a foreign language can have on decision-making, Hayakawa and her colleagues then propose a number of possible explanations for this effect:


Using a foreign language ENGAGES EMOTIONS LESS than a native tongue does.

Using a foreign language increases PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTANCE.

Using a foreign language increases disfluency, which leads to a more DELIBERATIVE MODE OF THINKING.


REDUCED EMOTION 

The leading explanation suggests that the Foreign-Language Effect is due to reduced emotionality. We learn our native tongue in an emotionally rich context, whilst we learn a second language in a more methodical, distant manner. This would suggest that thinking in a foreign language may be less affected by emotion.

However, Hayakawa is keen to point out that in terms of decisions, ‘less emotional’ doesn’t always mean ‘better’. As she explained to evidencebasedwisdom, ‘When we say “decision bias” or “emotional choice”, it’s usually with negative connotations. The truth is, however, that heuristics, biases, and emotional gut reactions are extremely useful tools for helping us make choices when we have limited information and don’t have the time or resources to think through every step of a decision. In these types of situations, using a foreign language may mute these important intuitions, leading to less optimal choices. … It may be the case that such intuitions shine through more clearly when using a native tongue and could lead to a better choice.’


When we say “decision bias” or “emotional choice”, it’s usually with negative connotations. The truth is, however, that heuristics, biases, and emotional gut reactions are extremely useful tools for helping us make choices when we have limited information and don’t have the time or resources to think through every step of a decision. In these types of situations, using a foreign language may mute these important intuitions, leading to less optimal choices. … It may be the case that such intuitions shine through more clearly when using a native tongue and could lead to a better choice.


INCREASED PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTANCE 

The authors also suggest that use of a foreign language might enable one to stay at some distance from the problem and more easily achieve a ‘bird’s eye view.’ When discussing the possible implications of the research for real-world decision-making, Hayakawa pointed out, ‘There is already research demonstrating that increased psychological distance can lead to greater humility, creativity, and improved negotiation outcomes. To the extent that our findings generalize beyond the lab to real-world situations, using a foreign language could result in similar outcomes.’


There is already research demonstrating that increased psychological distance can lead to greater humility, creativity, and improved negotiation outcomes. To the extent that our findings generalize beyond the lab to real-world situations, using a foreign language could result in similar outcomes.


DELIBERATIVE MODE OF THINKING ADOPTED

Rather than the extra demand on the brain impeding our decision-making, the paper’s authors suggest the opposite may in fact be true – that the increased difficulty of speaking in a foreign language may sound alarm bells that greater consideration and more careful thinking is required, resulting in the adoption of a more considered mode of thinking.

This aligns with reasoning outlined in Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow‘, which suggested that ‘trick’ Maths problems were answered correctly more frequently when the problems were presented in a more illegible format.


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So it seems that the Foreign-Language Effect can indeed lead to wiser decisions in certain situations. Hayakawa suggested that whilst following our intuition can sometimes be a quick route to a good decision, there are other times when such short cuts are just not up to the job.

As she explained, ‘The problem is that we often over-apply these heuristics to situations where they are no longer useful or relevant. It’s in these situations where the psychological and emotional distance of using a foreign language could help us make a better, more reasoned choice.


The problem is that we often over-apply these heuristics to situations where they are no longer useful or relevant. It’s in these situations where the psychological and emotional distance of using a foreign language could help us make a better, more reasoned choice.


So how might we actually apply this research in our own lives? Should we all be brushing up on our school French and Spanish?

Whilst keen to point out that this research is still in its early days, Hayakawa did stress the importance of paying attention to the effect that language can have on our thinking: ‘While it’s still too early to begin offering tips for daily life, it’s important to keep in mind that the language we use may be affecting us in subtle ways, and could potentially be used to help nudge us into different mindsets.’


While it’s still too early to begin offering tips for daily life, it’s important to keep in mind that the language we use may be affecting us in subtle ways, and could potentially be used to help nudge us into different mindsets.


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The paper discussed in this dispatch can be found here:

Using a Foreign Language Changes Our Choices (Hayakawa, Costa, Foucart, Keysar, 2016)


Why not have a look at the following resources to learn more about the work:

The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking In a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases (Keysar, Hayakawa, An, 2012) – In this paper, Deputy Director of The Center for Practical Wisdom and Director of The Multilingualism and Decision-Making Lab Boaz Keysar investigates the impact of using a foreign language on the processing of risk.

Your Morals Depend on Language (Costa, Foucart, Hayakawa, Aparici, Apesteguia, Heafner, Keysar, 2014) – In the paper, Albert Costa of the Center for Brain and Cognition at Universitat Pompeu Fabra investigates the relationship between foreign language use and increased utilitarian decision-making.

Wisdom in a Foreign Langauge – Sayuri Hayakawa Video Presentation at Center for Practical Wisdom Research Forum July 2016 – In this video presentation, Sayuri Hayakawa outlines the team’s research, including recent experimental data.

How Knowing a Foreign Language Can Improve Your Decisions – Scientific American Magazine article, 2012 – Learn more about the team’s research into the impact of the Foreign-Language Effect on risk perception


If you have any thoughts about the dispatch, please get in touch.

You can contact me at charles@evidencebasedwisdom.com, via the about page or find me on twitter @EBasedwisdom.

Charles

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