Speaking More Languages Helps You Make Better Decisions
Bilingual brains are fascinating.
We store different memories in different languages. Arguments I had in French are sometimes “translated” into English when I remember them, as though the rawness of rage takes me back to my mother tongue.
Our entire personalities can change depending on what language we are speaking. I am funnier in English and gentler in French.
Research also suggests that bilingual people make decisions differently depending on which language you ask the question in.
Weird, right? Psychologists think so, too.
The Foreign Language Effect
Psychologists have long suspected that different languages affect our brains. In the 1960s, Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov translated his own autobiography, Speak, Memory, from English to Russian. As he did so, he was flooded with new memories from his past. He realised that changing between languages led to new details emerging from his subconscious.
This piqued the curiosity of psychologists who wondered if this was a unique case or a broader psychological phenomenon. They started looking into how languages affect decision-making.
They found out that switching between languages can influence how we make financial decisions and approach moral dilemmas. In a second language, we tend to be more rational and open-minded and better at handling uncertainty. They termed this the “foreign language effect”.
Professor Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago grew up in Israel, and after three decades in the US, he still feels more emotional in Hebrew than in English. It led him to wonder if language could affect his moral and logical reasoning. To find out, he took the “trolley problem” and asked a bunch of bilingual people what they would do.
You may well have heard of the trolley problem. It is a well-known thought experiment in ethics and moral philosophy. It goes like this:
Imagine you are standing near a trolley track, and there is an out-of-control trolley…