PSYCHOLOGY

Is your judgment clouded by emotion? Think in another language

Spanish research confirms we are more rational when we don’t process information in our mother tongue

An interpreter at a plenary session of the European Parliament.
An interpreter at a plenary session of the European Parliament.Pietro Naj-Oleari / PE-EP

Many a mother has turned to her children in exasperation and asked rhetorically: “What language do you need me to use so you’ll pay attention?”

It turns out that there is some truth behind the question. A series of recent scientific studies suggests that we think and make decisions differently if we process the information in a language other than our mother tongue.

The proportion of people willing to sacrifice a person for the larger good shot up from 20% to nearly 50%

Even if we grasp the notion equally well in both languages, our final decision on the matter will tend to be better thought out, less emotional and more results-oriented.

“It is good for deliberative thinking; it makes you think twice about things,” says Albert Costa, a leading expert on bilingualism at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

Costa began his research with the tramway dilemma: would you push someone onto the tracks if that death were to save the lives of five other people? The moral conflict involved in sending someone to their death appears to vanish when the question is put to subjects in a language other than their mother tongue.

The proportion of people willing to sacrifice a person for the larger good shot up from 20% to nearly 50%, with the only difference being that they processed the question in a second language.

Costa and several colleagues have just published their findings in the specialized journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Many other studies have confirmed these findings. It appears that processing information in a foreign language makes us less prone to emotional thinking and more focused on efficient results. We become less moralistic and more utilitarian.

Tests have been conducted on fully bilingual individuals, and tried with Spanish, English, Italian, German and other languages. The particular language used in each case does not seem to affect the outcome.

The research also finds that thinking in another language increases our tolerance for risk-taking on anything from planning a trip to embracing a new breakthrough in biotechnology.

These insights might be useful during negotiations that require participants to put personal feelings aside

Also, we are less offended by insults delivered in a different language.

The reasons for this dual linguistic personality are unclear. Costa suggests a series of interconnected possibilities: “On the one hand, using another language forces you to think more slowly. And we also think that emotional issues are more strongly connected with the first language that we learn.”

As the Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman explains, our brain seems to have a System 1, which focuses on fast, instinctive and stereotypic thinking, and a System 2, which deals with issues requiring greater consideration.

In our native language, we may be more prone to using System 1, while the additional effort required for thinking in a foreign language might trigger System 2. This could explain the higher percentage of people who overcome loss aversion and moral dilemmas in a foreign language.

Costa’s work often mentions settings such as the United Nations or the European Union, where many members make decisions in a foreign language.

“And in multinationals, in science and in many other settings, there are people working in English although it is not their native tongue,” says Costa, who is working on developing practical applications based on these findings.

For instance, these insights might be useful during negotiations that require participants to put their personal feelings to one side and focus on the greater good.

In fact, it might be a good idea to propose that English become the working language inside Spain’s blocked Congress.

English version by Susana Urra.

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