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Reduce Dumb Decisions by Thinking in a Foreign Language

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(CHICAGO) -- People who think problems through in a foreign language -- and it doesn’t matter which one -- make more rational decisions and are more apt to take smart risks, especially in the financial realm, according to a recent study in the journal Psychological Science.

Left to follow their gut instincts, people are naturally loss-averse, sometimes myopically so, and often pass up favorable opportunities as a result, says Boaz Keysar, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and lead author of the study.

“Imagine I offer you $100, or we flip a coin and if it’s heads, you get $200, and if it’s tails, you get nothing,” Keysar says.  “Most people would say, ‘I’ll take the $100 and not risk getting nothing.  Ninety-nine percent of people would do that, even if I offer $2,200 or nothing.  We have an emotional reaction to a definite, immediate gain.”

But consider the proposal in Korean, French, Spanish, Japanese -- any non-native tongue -- and the aversion to losses diminishes, and our willingness to take risks changes, Keysar and his research team found.

“A foreign language is less emotionally connected than our native tongue, and distances you,” says Keysar, who, even after 25 years in the United States, says he still “operates differently” in English than in his native Hebrew.

“A non-native language takes you away cognitively and slows you down, especially if you’re not that skilled in it,” he says.

As counterintuitive as that seems, it’s a nice boost for the language slackers.

“The less proficient you are in a second language, the more you’ll deliberate over decisions,” Keysar says, “and your choices benefit from such deliberation.  It’s like you become somewhat of a different person.”

In one of six experiments to gauge just how different, Keysar and colleagues enlisted 54 University of Chicago students who were native English speakers but had been studying Spanish.  They gave each student $15 in $1 bills to make 15 separate bets in a coin toss.  In each toss, they could either pass up the bet and keep the dollar, or risk losing it for the possibility of getting an extra $1.50 if they won the toss, or nothing if they lost. 

These were advantageous bets, Keysar explains, as statistically, the students stood to come out ahead if they took all 15 bets.

While the students who considered the wager in Spanish took the bet 71 percent of the time, those who thought it through in English were willing to wager only 54 percent of the time.

“Bear in mind that we gave them the $15.  It’s not as if it was even their own money,” Keysar says.  “But in the foreign language, they were not as motivated by fear.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio