Thinking in a different language affects how you make decisions


22 Responses to “Thinking in a different language affects how you make decisions”

  1. wcplnews says:

    What about those of us who are bi-lingual, as in, we grew up speaking two languages? 

    • J C says:

      My guess would be that if the risk is presented in a language you know fluently, one that you grow up with, you’ll be able to process on a more emotional level and be susceptible to the phrasing.

      It’s probably not the best analogy, but consider how it is to read: if you read fluidly, you do not necessarily perceive words on a page but the actual ideas or visuals they represent (you don’t even read each letter of a word but the amalgamation of letters, as shown by a number of studies where people can raed snetenses of smcralbed wrods.)

      But with poor or mediocre reading skills, it can be difficult to follow ideas, form clear visuals in your mind, or connect on an emotional level to the story. Similarly, someone who must filter ideas through translation will lose that connection to emotion.

      That’s just my guess, anyway.

  2. Marc45 says:

    There’s also the old psychology test that shows proximity to any potential victims affects whether or not the subject will make the certain decision.

  3. Matt Katz says:

    I just started reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  It goes over the different systems that make decisions in our brain – I would predict ANY thing that forces you to make a slower decision would tend towards producing more rational decisions.   Here the mechanism would be reduced fluency forcing you to think more about the terms.  I would love to see the responses broken out by familiarity and fluency in the second language – my hypothesis would be that increased fluency would lead to more of the instinctual choice.

  4. Baldhead says:

    i”ve often wondered if simply thinking in a given language led your thoughts in a particular general set of pathways- in other words, just like certain kinds of music seem easier to sing in spanish are there certain kinds of thoughts easier to think in spanish? 

  5. Ashen Victor says:

    That sounds a lot like the Bat and Ball question from an earlier post.

  6. GTMoogle says:

    One answer might lie in the $10 baseball article that apparently only one of the hundreds of people who commented on it read:

    You think more analytically when understanding the question is difficult.

    You can modify how people answer an ethical conundrum by the language you ask it in.

    You can modify how religious people feel by changing how hard to read the font of your questionnaire is.

    (and you can get people to do silly math problems by telling them it will tell them something about themselves, but damned if I know how to get people to consistently read the source article ^_^ )

  7. hypnosifl says:

    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.

    Is this actually an accurate description of the scenario? The way you describe it, there is no possible way that not taking the risk could save more people than taking it–if you don’t take it all 600 are guaranteed to die, if you do take it 400 are guaranteed to die but 200 have a chance of surviving. I have a hard time believing that with this scenario, people would be so stupid as to be scared off by the description “if you take this risk, 400 people will die” since surely it would occur to them that if they don’t take the risk, 600 will die. Is there a link that discusses this example? 

    The scenario described in the Wired article is actually quite different, since there, depending on the outcome of your risky bet, more people could end up dying than if you hadn’t taken the risk. So in that case it would make more sense to me that depending on the way it’s framed verbally (including what language it’s framed in), people might make different choices.

  8. Dewi Morgan says:

    Given these entirely different and poorly-phrased problems, I can understand that people
    would treat them differently.

    Money is easier to understand.

    As phrased in the OP:

    You bet twice.
    First time, you’re betting $600.

    If you take action A, you are guaranteed to lose $400.

    If you don’t bet, you lose all $600.

    Clearly the better option is to bet on A here.
    You bet a second time, another $600.

    If you take action B, you are guaranteed to keep only $200.
    If you don’t bet in this case, the results are unspecified.

    Clearly the better option here is not to play, since you have no idea what the odds are in the “don’t bet” case.

    I think what was MEANT was:You’re betting $600.

    If you take action A, you are guaranteed to lose $400.

    If you take action B, you are guaranteed to keep $200.

    If you don’t bet, you lose all $600.

    Clearly B is the better option because in both A and B, no guarantee is given to the fate of the rest of the cash that isn’t mentioned. Compare:
    You’re betting $600.

    If you take action A, you’re guaranteed to lose $400 and keep the rest.

    If you take action B, you are guaranteed to keep $200 and lose the rest.

    If you don’t bet, you lose all $600.
    NOW A and B are the same!

    In summary: yes, obviously people do change their actions if you change the language of the problem, *if your language changes also changed the meaning and outcomes*.

    “N people will die” does not mean “N people will die and everyone else will live” in any version of English I have ever encountered.

  9. Thad Boyd says:

    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.

    I’d have to read the study in more detail, but from the summary what it actually says is “If you’re thinking and talking in your native language AND YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE IS ENGLISH, you’re likely to respond to a risky situation pretty much exactly as in the classic example, whereas if you’re thinking and talking about the situation in a second language AND THAT LANGUAGE IS JAPANESE, things change.”  I don’t see any indication that it generalizes.

    I think GTMoogle is on the right track and it’s the complexity of speaking in a foreign language that causes people to think more analytically.  BUT that’s not necessarily so.

    I think Japanese is a more “mathematical” language than English is — what happens when you try the study in reverse, with native Japanese speakers?  Could be the issue isn’t native versus foreign, it’s English versus Japanese.

    Or, try substituting other languages.  What happens if a native English speaker considers the question in Russian, German, etc.?  Or vice-versa?

    • Daemonworks says:

      So, first thing, if you’d read the article, you’d notice that they did do it in mutiple languages. One was Americans who learned Japanese, another was Korean who learned English and a third was Americans who spoke Spanish as a second language.

      Secondly… Japanese is more “mathematical”? I speak the language reasonably well (enough for daily life at least), and I have no idea what that even means…

      • Amelia_G says:

        Yebbit, it still appears to have been mostly US students. I’d have liked to see a more international population of experimental animals. One reason learning a foreign language helped me as an American kid think straighter is it stripped out the repetitive slang and unrelated but entertaining tv references that passed for conversation… A second reason is probably that we were learning the new language in a university environment that was slightly more rational than the environment in which we learned our Muttersprache. Which brings me to the third reason: the source of my new language, Germany, and other countries may be just slightly more rational than the USA, especially university Germany vs. Appalachian small towns. Again, I’d have liked to see a broader range of test subjects in this very interesting study.

  10. Mari Lwyd says:

    I’m curious whether the same results occur when questions of risk are posed in English to native speakers of Japanese that are also fluent in English. 
    I expect for most that the issue is one thinks more lazily when using their native language than a second language. However, if it’s proved that certain languages are better for discussing certain issues then it would open up some interesting new lines of language research. Topic-based sub-dialects: so weird and cool and possibly useful.


    How can researchers be sure that participants are really using their first or their second language while making their decisions? Mmm… They can’t. They can perhaps only “push” a language modality (i.e. speaking in language A before the test for a while, and assuming that will be the (only?) active language during tests. So, I am now going to read the article. :-) , but if I get lazy, anyone can answer this?

  12. Sparrow says:

    The “safe” option would be to take the sure thing to save 1/3 of the people rather than risking not curing anyone. Then again, I always seem to look at this kind of question from the wrong side, probably because my first language is one of those weird private twin languages, without the benefit of actually having a twin, and English is a distant second.

  13. Daemonworks says:

    “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.”

    Because there are no theoretical people in real life.

  14. Thaiis Thei says:

    “One study doesn’t prove this is universally true.” Wisest part of this story. 

  15. Amelia_G says:

    John le Carré wrote several times that to learn another language is to grow another soul. Anyone know the source of this quote? I can’t google it.
    As for the meaning, I think you could substitute “perspective” for soul.

    • hypnosifl says:

      On the internet it’s often given as “learn a new language and get a new soul”, and said to be a “Czech proverb”, but attributions on random internet sites are never trustworthy. Whenever looking for quotes I always like to do an advanced google books search, sometimes with the date range restricted to find only the oldest results…Apparently the saying predates le Carré, for example I found this book from 1826 which says on p. 151, “It was justly said by the Emperor Charles the Fifth, that to learn a new language was to acquire a new soul.”

  16. niktemadur says:

    Anecdotal, not scientific at all, but here it is so far:

    A good friend is from the USA, his girlfriend is from Mexico.  My native language is Spanish, but I’m also fully fluent in English, and I mean FULLY fluent, like 85% NYT Sunday Crossword fluent.

    My friend told me this:  “You switch languages, and it’s like I’m seeing two different souls switching back and forth seamlessly in the same body”.

    But then again, this is only half of the story.  I may be willing to submit to some tests, but only if they’re applied by Maggie and Xeni at the same time.

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