- Leandro Herrero - https://leandroherrero.com -

For better decisions, bring the foreigners

Our thinking is far from rational. What’s new? Perhaps ‘making a rational decision’ should be reframed as ‘making a decision as rational as possible’.

We are full of biases. For example, we tend to hear what we want to hear (conformity bias) or we tend to make judgements, or give more weight to arguments, on the basis of information that is in front of our noses (availability heuristic bias). Also we are more driven by loss aversion (fear of losing 100 dollars/Euros/Pounds) than positive gains (probability of gaining 100 dollars/Euros/Pounds gaining).

Fascinating old experiments suggest that, when discussing all the elements, pros and cons, for a decision, but doing so in a foreign language (ex, by Frenchmen forced by the circumstances to speak in an American HQ) the decision making biases are largely reduced and the weight of the negative/positive framing seems to disappear. The experimenters proposed the hypothesis ‘that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does’ (Keysar, Hayakawa, Psychol Sci, 2012)

In other words, speaking in a foreign language may clean up all those interferences and therefore make people become ‘more rational’. Go back to your native language and all those old tricks come up again.

The so called ‘foreign language effect’ is one of the most intriguing in the area of cognitive studies. It is also one frequently quoted by Behavioural Economists.

I have never been completely surprised, if still intrigued, since in a parallel topic I often find myself picking up more ‘English errors’ that English natives. English is for me a ‘learned operating system’ in which what is wrong or right seem clear to me. It’s not the same as the ‘foreign language effect’ but it shows the importance of language  as a tool for everything, inlcuding contamination of irrationality

It would be tempted to say as in the headline, ‘bring the foreigners’… It sounds like a bit of a joke, but don’t dismiss it lightly.