Human psychology is full of biases. Some have to be accounted for by researchers while others, once understood, can explain why people think in certain ways. But in daily life, they tend to have a negative impact on a person’s decision-making process.
New research from psychologists at the University of Chicago suggests that operating in a second, non-native language can eliminate two of the most prevalent psychological biases.
How the Study Worked
The first has to do with framing of options. In the study, participants were given a choice between two options that were basically the same, but numerically framed differently so that the benefits or detriments of one choice were made more clear. Typically, people choose the option where the benefit is more clear out of safety or are willing to take a risky approach if the detriment is the clearer option. They see no other alternative with a positive result.
How people typically behave in such questions is called a “framing effect”. It has implications throughout life, but particularly in advertising. And if subjects in the study were asked to consider the choices in their non-native language, there was no framing effect at all. They judged both options on their pure merit and found them to be the same.
In the second half of the study, the researchers were interested in loss aversion. They presented participants with a simple coin flip gambling game.
Each participant received $15 with which to make 15 flips of a coin. If they called the right side, they won $1.50. If they did not, they lost a dollar. Simple probability states that this is an overall winning game for the participant, yet people offered this game in their native language were far less likely to play than if they were approached in their non-native language.
How the Results can be Interpreted
In both exercises, people were more likely to choose the more advantageous option if they were working in their non-native language. The researchers aren’t quite sure why this is, but they hypothesized that having to discuss the option in another language made them more systematic and rational in their thinking. There was some psychological and emotional distance.
Where might this have implications? Anywhere where a systematic way of thinking that takes into account long-term results is needed. For example, bilinguals who are presented investment or retirement options in their non-native language might make better decisions.