Back in 2002, psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the economics Nobel Prize for showing that human beings don't have a really good intuitive grasp of risk. Basically, the decisions we make when faced with a risky proposition depend more on how the question is framed than on what the actual outcome might be.
The classic example is to tell a subject that there's going to be a disaster. Out of 600 people, she has a chance of saving 200 if she takes x risk. If she doesn't take the risk, everybody dies. Most people will take the risk in that scenario, but if you present the same situation and frame it differently—"If you take this risk, 400 people will die"—the decisions suddenly flip in the other direction. Nothing has changed about the outcome. But everything has changed in terms of how people feel about the decision they have to make. This is the kind of thing that matters a lot to economics because it helps to explain why economic behavior in the real world isn't always as rational and self-interested as it is in theory.
There's a new study out in the journal Psychological Science that might add another layer of complexity to Kahneman's research. If you're thinking and talking in your native language, you're likely to respond to a risky situation pretty much exactly as in the classic example. But, these researchers found that if you're thinking and talking about the situation in a second language, things change. At Wired, Brandon Keim explains:
The first experiment involved 121 American students who learned Japanese as a second language. Some were presented in English with a hypothetical choice: To fight a disease that would kill 600,000 people, doctors could either develop a medicine that saved 200,000 lives, or a medicine with a 33.3 percent chance of saving 600,000 lives and a 66.6 percent chance of saving no lives at all.
Nearly 80 percent of the students chose the safe option. When the problem was framed in terms of losing rather than saving lives, the safe-option number dropped to 47 percent. When considering the same situation in Japanese, however, the safe-option number hovered around 40 percent, regardless of how choices were framed. The role of instinct appeared reduced.
That's interesting. The researchers tried this basic thing with several different groups of people—mostly native English speakers—and used several different risk scenarios, some involving loss of life, others involving loss of a job, and others involving decisions about betting money on a coin toss. They saw the same results in all the tests: People thinking in their second language weren't as swayed by the emotional impact of framing devices.
One study doesn't prove this is universally true. Even if it is true, nobody knows yet exactly why. But Keim says that the researchers think the difference lies in emotional distance. If you have to pause and really put some brain power into thinking about grammar and vocabulary, you can't just jump straight into the knee-jerk reaction.
Via Marilyn Terrell
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.