For those of us who know a second language, turns out, we can alter our mindset by a conscious choice of language used to think depending on the circumstance, to make better decisions. In this article, David Robson, the author of the book “The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life”, cites research studies which explore the ‘Foreign language effect’. Prof Boaz Keysar at the University of Chicago pioneered research on the subject to show people were more likely to make utilitarian choices when speaking a second language.

“Imagine, for instance, that you are standing on a footbridge when you see that an oncoming train is about to kill five people walking on the track. The only way to save these five people is to push a heavy man off the bridge in front of the train. He will die but the impact will prevent the train from hitting the other five people. This is considered the “utilitarian” choice in a version of the thought experiment known as the “trolley problem”. Many people feel such strong revulsion at the idea of pushing the man to his death that they would prefer to take no action at all, even though that means that many more lives will be lost.

In a preliminary experiment, Keysar’s team asked participants who had learned Spanish as a second language to consider this dilemma in either their native or adopted tongue. As he had hypothesised, they were far more likely to make the utilitarian choice when they used Spanish compared with English. The effect was so big that Keysar delayed publishing the results. “I just didn’t believe the data,” he says. A later collaboration with Albert Costa at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, however, documented the same results across diverse participants from the US, Europe and Asia. In one sample, participants were twice as likely to choose the utilitarian option when speaking a second language.”

He later found the foreign language effect to address classic cognitive biases such as myopic loss aversion, the framing effect and the sunk cost effect.

“One of the most intriguing recent studies tested the “bias blind spot” – the expectation that we are less susceptible to error than the average person. “We believe that other people are stupid, and we are not,” explains Michał Białek, an associate professor at the University of Wrocław, Poland. In line with Keysar’s findings, he found that speaking a foreign language punctures this egotistical way of thinking.”

What explains this?
“Keysar suggests that people employ more careful and deliberative thinking when using their foreign language: “You need to make sure that what you say, and how you understand things, is correct.” And they apply the same attention to the monitoring of their memories, leading them to question the accuracy of their recollections rather than simply recounting the first thing that comes into their heads.

The foreign language effect may even stretch to elements of our personality. Silvia Purpuri at the University of Trento, Italy has examined “tolerance of ambiguity”, which concerns people’s appreciation of uncertainty, and their willingness to enter unfamiliar situations. This can influence our behaviour in a changing workplace. “Those with high levels of tolerance of ambiguity display more flexibility and adaptability, leading to a more harmonious working environment and overall successful performance,” explains Purpuri. By allowing people to entertain new ideas, tolerance of ambiguity can improve people’s creative problem-solving. Recruiting Italian-English bilingual speakers, Purpuri and her colleagues found that people naturally score more highly on this trait when primed to use their second language.

In today’s increasingly globalised world, many people regularly use two or more languages in their day-to-day lives, yet they may be completely unaware how that may influence their thinking. “People need to realise that if they choose to use one language over the other, that will have a systematic effect on the process and outcome of what they do,” says Keysar.”

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