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?
Speakers of two languages may have extra defenses against the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease—that’s according to new research announced this weekend at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC. Psychologist Ellen Bialystok and her team studied more than 200 Alzheimer’s patients with about the same level of mental acumen, about half of whom were bilingual and half of whom were monolingual. The result: On average, the speakers of multiple languages had been diagnosed four years later in their lives. Says Bialystok:
“Being bilingual has certain cognitive benefits and boosts the performance of the brain, especially one of the most important areas known as the executive control system. We know that this system deteriorates with age but we have found that at every stage of life it functions better in bilinguals. They perform at a higher level. It won’t stop them getting Alzheimer’s disease, but they can cope with the disease for longer.” [The Guardian]
To get a look at that system, the team took CT scans of the patients’ brain. That’s when they found something curious: The physical ravages of Alzheimer’s were actually more advanced in the brains of bilinguals, despite the fact that they were mentally more protected.