Monday, 30 April 2012

Think foreign, think rational

Well this is weird. Apparently, if you think in a foreign language when you're making a decision, you're more likely to make a rational, deliberate choice than to go with your gut instinct.

The premise is that these two contradictory scenarios are both plausible, so which one is right?:
  1. Thinking in another language takes up cognitive power, so there aren't enough little grey cells left for decision-making, and you go with your gut.
  2. Thinking in another language forces you to think quite consciously and deliberately, so you don't have as much freedom to make impulsive choices.
The experiment was based on Daniel Kahneman's famous study of framing: people are presented with a problem which involves them having to make a decision about saving or losing lives. There are two options, one of which means saving 200 out of 600 lives and the other means taking an all-or-nothing chance which will either save everyone or no one. Most people play safe and save 200 people. The framing part is that it's also presented in terms of losing lives, in which case they can either lose 400 out of 600, or take the all-or-nothing chance. Now most people prefer to take the risk. (Well, wouldn't you rather be the person that tried to save all the lives than the person who deliberately killed 400 people? Never mind that the person that chose to save 200 people was doing exactly the same thing.)

This means that people fluctuate wildly depending on how the problem is worded (framed), and allow their emotions to make illogical decisions when faced with a really hard choice. If you could remove that element of 'gut instinct', people would make the same choice each time (whichever choice it was). So if 2 above is right, this fluctuation should disappear or be much reduced. If 1 is right, it should remain.

In this new experiment, the same scenario was presented to groups of people in their first language (English) or their second language (Japanese). Graph a shows the number of people who chose the 'safe' option (chose to save the 200) in English and in Japanese. The black bar is when it's framed as saving lives, the grey when it's framed as losing them. You can see that in Japanese (L2), the number of people choosing that option remained constant, showing that they made more conscious, deliberate choices in their second language. (Graph b shows another similar experiment done on Korean speakers who'd learnt English, giving the same result.)

They even tried it with a small-risk, real-life experiment to see if it was the same, and in the process proved just how stupid people are. They gave students who had L1 English and L2 Spanish $15. For each dollar, the choice was to keep a dollar, in which case they had a dollar, or to gamble it. They might lose it, but if they won, they would get their original dollar back plus $1.50. So there is a very short-term risk, but the risk is low and the payoff worth a gamble, surely. And there's the added fact that if you gamble all your $15, you're pretty much likely to come out a couple of dollars better off. If you win nearly half the time, say 7 times out of 15 bets, you'll lose $8, but you'll win $10.50, leaving you with $17.50. Only 54% of students took the bet when it was presented in English, but when they had to use their second language, 71% of them did.

This shows that students aren't good at maths, and that people are really really scared of risk and will make irrational decisions in order to avoid it. Reduce their irrationality, and you get less risk-averse and more logical students. But then, why would you want that?

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