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Language matters
'People are more logical in a foreign language'
Emotions are less likely to get in the way when you make decisions in a foreign language. File photo: Aislinn Ritchie

'People are more logical in a foreign language'

Published: 08 Jan 2014 10:12 GMT+01:00
Updated: 08 Jan 2014 10:12 GMT+01:00

It turns out using a foreign language is not always a disadvantage. People are better at making rational decisions when they are not using their native language, new research by Spanish scientists shows.

People make decisions differently depending on whether they are operating in a first or second language, the team from Barcelona's Universidad Pompeu Fabra found.

"We recruited a group of Spanish native speakers who had a reasonable, but not very high level of English, and who don't use the language regularly," study author Albert Costa told The Local.

"We then asked them to do a series of decision-making tests in both their native Spanish and in English," said Costa who heads up the Speech Production and Bilingualism unit at the Universidad Pompeu Fabra.

Those tests involved four different types of individual decision-making problems and tackled issues like risk and certainty as well as loss aversion, or the idea that people are prefer to avoid loss than acquire gains.  

"When people used their native language, their choices tended to be more affected by emotional factors," said study author Alberat Costa who heads up the Speech Production and Bilingualism unit at the Universidad Pompeu Fabra.

"But we found the study participants tended to be more rational and 'colder' in their problem-solving when using their second language — in this case English."

The study backs up the findings of a 2012 University of Chicago study which also found that using a foreign language reduces decision-making bias.

"We propose that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does," said the authors of that study.

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George Mills (george.mills@thelocal.com)

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