Want to Make Rational Decisions? Think About Them In a Foreign Language.

By Sarah Zhang | April 26, 2012 12:48 pm

spacing is important

Behavioral economists have documented the all too many ways that humans are predictably irrational. Emotions and biases often just get the better of us. In a new study in Psychological Science, however, psychologists found that people forced to think in a foreign language made more rational decisions. C’est vrai!

Psychologists took classic scenarios from behavioral economics and posed them to students in their native and foreign languages. Here’s an example of one:

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?

Most people would go with A, the less risky bet, because we’re risk-averse when the choice is framed as a gain—as in “saving people.” But what if we framed the question a little differently in this second scenario?

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?

Suddenly, with this glass-half-empty wording, medicine A seems like a less palatable option. Although the two scenarios are exactly the same (200,000 saved and 400,000 dead are the same thing if you have 600,000 people), people become more risk-seeking in the second scenario, when medicine A is framed as a loss of life, and go with medicine B. The researchers asked this question to three different groups of students—Americans learning Japanese, Koreans learning English, and Americans learning French—and in each case the risk-framing effect disappeared when students had to think in their foreign language. They acted rationally.

Even when we understand a foreign language, what should be emotionally charged phrases, such swears or expressions of love, just don’t register the same emotional effect. The researchers think that’s why the participants were able to make more rational decisions in a foreign language. Humans are very loss-averse—the pain of losing $10 is generally worse than the joy of winning $10—but this emotional aspect gets filtered out when thinking in a non-native tongue. A second experiment in the study asked students to make bets on a coin toss, and American students made bets more rationally in Spanish.

As anyone who has tried learning a new language knows, thinking in a foreign language is hard. Usually when we’re faced with this extra layer of difficulty—what psychologists call cognitive load—we start relying on mental shortcuts rather than considering the problem rationally. That’s one reason this result about thinking in foreign languages is a little surprising, and also kind of heartening: We can find relatively easy ways to engage our rational faculties if necessary.

[via Wired Science]

 Spanish numbers image via Shutterstock / Stephen Aaron Rees

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
  • Leisa

    “Although the two scenarios are exactly the same (1/3 of 600,000 people are saved in both cases)”

    Is that true? That’s not how I read it. (I know this isn’t the point of the article, but I’d like to know if my thinking is seriously flawed or if the writer’s is.)
    If you go with med A then 200,000 people are guaranteed to live and 400,000 are guaranteed to die.
    If you go with med B then there’s a 2/3 chance no one will survive.
    I don’t see how the author concludes that both scenarios are the same and that they both guarantee that 1/3 of the people are saved.
    Personally I’d go with med B because even though there only a 1/3 chance the entire 600,000 will be saved at least everyone has an equal chance- either we all live or we all die (unless this is a save the human species situation in which case I’d take the sure bet of guaranteeing at least some survive). Yes, I’m a nerd.

  • rabidmob

    Seems conceptually flawed. Poor wording leads to believe there is a 66% chance that 600,000 people will die with medicine B, since the reader is lead to believe the unit of measurement is 600,000 people.

  • Sarah Zhang


    The two scenarios refer to 200,000 saved or 400,000 dying out of 600,000 people who would have died without medicine. Medicine A gives the same result in both cases. However, changing the wording also changes whether people prefer A to B. I’ll clarify my wording in the original post.

    That’s actually exactly what they mean — the unit of measurement is 600,000 people and there’s a 66.7% chance that 600,000 will die. A and B do give different results (they represent different amounts of risk).

  • jeff

    Given enough trials, the two options will tend towards the same results statistically. The article isn’t about which is the better choice.

    A person acting rationally will make the same choice regardless of wording, but in your native tongue, you apparently pay more attention to connotation (as opposed to denotation) than in a foreign tongue.
    Regardless of how it was phrased, a logical person will make the same decision in the same situation phrased differently. In the native tongue, people switched.

  • Andromeda

    I wonder if the results would be the same if people being asked these questions were fluent in the foreign language and had been speaking it for many years…

  • http://www.facebook.com/lezioni.italiano olasz lecke

    Italian numbers image…

  • Luís Moreira

    Well, I understand the goal of the article and I agree with it. People generally will be more rational in a foreign language. What I think is wrong is the example chosen. In the first case (medicine A) we’re talking about the effect of a treatment in a population of 600,000 people. In the second case (medicine B) it is the effect of a choice. Let me put this in other words. If I have each year 600,000 people submitted to a treatment, I will choose medicine A because I guarantee a survival each year of 1/3 of the population submitted to medicine A. If I would choose medicine B, I will have a high probability of everybody dying in that year. In fact it means that in 100 years of the application of medicine B to a population of 600,000/year I will have 66,6 years with no one saved. In the end of 100 years of application the results, are the same but not for each year! I think no one will ever choose medicine B which have a high risk of failure.
    At least, it is what it seems to me… Don’t worry I am not a doctor!

  • floodmouse

    I find it interesting that people assume there is a “rational” answer to this question that is divorced from emotional considerations. A “rational” politician or machine, devoid of any human feeling, might just conclude that the overall economy would improve if 600,000 people died, and decide not to waste any money manufacturing medicine. After all, the human population is certainly large enough that neither human survival nor economic viability would be affected by 600,000 extra deaths. For one thing, the unemployment rate would go down. The whole point of trying to save lives is that we value lives emotionally. If I were responsible for making this decision, what I would do is try to take a nationwide poll, giving everyone a chance to say which option they would prefer, then go with the majority opinion. If I had to make a unilateral decision without any input, I would go with the gamble (try to save them all, but risk losing them all if I fail). However, if the population was small enough that 600,000 people would cause extinction risk or significant economic hardship, I would go with the “safe” option of saving one-third of the people, instead of gambling. Of course, this kind of study is innately flawed, because there is almost always a third or fourth option “outside the box.” For example, you could allocate part your financial resources to manufacturing Medicine A, and another portion of your resources to manufacturing Medicine B. Then you would guarantee to save some people, and still have a chance of saving a greater proportion than in the the original “Medicine A” scenario.

  • AG

    As bilingual person, it makes perfect sence.

  • Guy Gordon

    Extremely flawed. I recognized the two alternatives as statistical equals, and chose the one that sounded better simply because there was no third choice.

    Besides, Choice A is stated as a certainty, while B is stated as a probability, making Choice A easier to defend.

  • Pippa

    Two thoughts; one, my logic was the same as Luise – the average is the same over time, one has less uncertainty from year to year. So I too would have gone with option A – in my own language. I am a child psychiatrist and was nearly a mathematician. I doubt if I lack understanding of human emotion or empathy, but I do have a good founding in statistics. Most people have little grasp of statistics and it is a lack of this that seems to lead to their grasping at an answer based on other factors, harm from action with a degree of personal responsibility vs. that from inaction with no direct blame attributable.
    My other thought is – autism is a disorder of communication. Maybe autists are so rational because they use their first language as if it is a foreign language. Thinking in their own language is hard!

  • Linda

    The most common comment is one that requests more information! That’s paralysis of analysis. Those folks should try learning a foreign language.

  • http://Aol.com Renate

    I grew up in Austria, speaking German but have lived in the US for 49years and now think mostly in English. I too, when faced with a task that required to think carefully, will often still switch to think in German, which clarifies the task at hand for me. I seem t0 consider all factors more carefully in my original language. First, thinking about it in English, I immediately chose A, then switching to German, I read the question out loud in German and found I would choose B instead. I believe it is that we all still think, at least in part, by rote. If you want to know what a person’s childhood language is, just give them a bit of math to do and they will most likely start talking in their native language to tackle the problem.

  • John Yate

    Maybe we find it hard to cope with the choice between A and B is becuase it is fundamentally unrealistic.
    Sadly, medicine A does seem like what happens in a number of common medical interventions, for fairly common conditions, where we try but we fail, but Medicine B presents us with a cliff-edge effect either of saving a lot of people or of saving hardly anyone, year after year. Nothing would be allowed to work like that.
    One could imagine, as a thought experiment, a vaccination programme with a vaccine that might just kill all the recipients some years, but save everyone in others. This would not be tolerated or be regarded as ethical if there had been just one failure year. Nobody would be able to cope with the possibility that it could happen again.

  • JohnK

    @Andromeda Its exactly my concern…if you happen to be fluent in 2 languages, it would seem as if by foreign language in this case would be a third. If emotions are more vividly expressed if you’re fluent then the language that takes the most thought process might be the one the study reffers to.. That’s my conclusion for now.

  • anon

    I’d pick A. Since if you are actually living in a world with such terrible diseases and poor medical treatments, going with B methods increases the chances of human extinction- “all or nothing” is a poor long term survival strategy.

    But the real way is to establish strict quarantines till the disease burns itself out or evolves to be less lethal.

    Meanwhile you can test medicine B on some sick or “going to be sick” volunteers first, if it doesn’t save them, you go to A. If it works, you give people B.


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