Blog of Sara Jakša

For Better Thinking, Think in a Foreign Language

For one thing, we know that we are not really rational homo economicus that economics like to assume we are. Be it because we don't have resources to be like that, leading to bounded rationality, or because it is much more energy efficient to have two system, with only one being rational.

This can lead to a lot of biases. From sunk cost bias, where people prefer to stick with things that they invested a lot in, or status-quo bias, where people prefer the known.

And while these biases can sometimes be helpful, sometimes we want to be able to make decision without them influencing us. And there is one pretty simple way to do it: simply think in a language that is not your native tongue.

A couple of examples were written in the this 2012 paper. They showed that presenting things in a foreign language can diminish the biases compared to the native language.

They showed this works with framing bias, where people make different decisions, based on how the things are worded, and loss aversion, where people prefer to not lose than to gain.

They claim that this might be the effect of the emotional distance created by using the less fluent language. Which might be true, at least when we take into account this 2014 article.

In that paper they were comparing the more moral decision making. People were making more utilitarian decisions making. In the morality, it is said that instinctive or system 1 morality is the one that protects someone's rights. The rational or system 2 morality is the one that is working for the greater good.

Since utilitarianism is based on the working for the grater good, it is considered less emotional and more rational.

For for the people not believing that there can be differences based only on the language use: Kobayashi at al. showed that there are differences in brain activity, when people were doing the exercise in the native and foreign language.

So next time you try to make a more rational decision, maybe give it a try and do it in a foreign language.