Think in a foreign language for better work decisions

Forget about business school. If you want to improve your business acumen, the best route may be to study a foreign language.

University of Chicago researchers have found that people make more rational decisions when they think things through in a foreign language, according to a study published in Psychological Science.

Normally people are loathe to risk what they have for the opportunity to make more. And because of that they will pass up attractive business opportunities, says the study’s lead author, Boaz Keysar, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

“We show that when people think in a foreign language they take more risks that are beneficial,” Keysar said. “They are less afraid of potential loss and that allows them to take advantage of risks that are worth taking as opposed to frivolous risks.”

As a general rule, humans tend to be quite risk averse, Keysar said.

When you’re mulling a question over in a foreign language you tap into the more analytical side of your brain, he explained. Thinking in your native tongue tends to be more tinged with emotion, especially fear.

To look at the impact of foreign language on decision making, Keysar and his colleagues rounded up 54 college students who were English speakers, but who were learning Spanish. Each student was given 15 dollar bills and told that they would have 15 opportunities to bet one of their dollars on a coin toss. If they won the toss they would get $2.50 back. If they lost, they would lose their dollar.

The bets were attractive because statistically the students stood to come out ahead if they took all 15, Keysar explained.

When the experiment was conducted in English the students took the bet only 54 percent of the time. When it was conducted in Spanish, they took the bet 71 percent of the time.

And that’s because students mulling over a bet in English allowed fear of losing a dollar get in the way of their taking a risk to make more. When they thought things over in Spanish they were better able to analyze the question rationally.

“And you realize that this was done with money we gave them,” Keysar said. “It’s not like they had to take it out of their own pockets. But there was still the thought that ‘I’ve got this dollar in my hand and do I want to risk losing it?’ They were thinking myopically about each bet separately. Somehow when they thought in a foreign language they were able to move back and take the bigger perspective.”

It’s not clear yet how these new findings can be implemented on an individual basis, but Keysar suggests that a company’s teams might use the foreign language test to see if members are making decisions rationally or whether there’s a fear of loss bias.

“You could divide the team into two groups,” he said. “Then have one make a decision in their native tongue and the other in a foreign language and see if they come to the same conclusion. If you see a systematic difference, it’s a good indication that some bias is influencing the decision.”