Thinking in a Foreign Language Makes Decisions More Rational

I’ve been saying this for years!!!

Or, at least, a version of this…because I have noticed this in myself.

This ‘Wired’ article is about a recent study which found that people’s risk assessment appears to be less affected by linguistic positioning when they are functioning in a language they are just studying:

“It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases,” wrote Keysar’s team.

It is an interesting article, well worth the read.

NOTE:  The sign in the picture which accompanies the article  says different things in English and in Czech.

The Czech wording, if simply translated, would say ‘Prohibition on Interpreting’. Though, for ease of use (and, perhaps symmetry), this would be interpreted as ‘Interpreting Forbidden’.

The Czech word for ‘translating’ (accents omitted) is ‘prekladani’ ‘Tlumoceni’ means ‘interpreting’.

There is a difference!

OK – details aside….

Thinking using any symbolic language is slow and cumbersome.  It is much faster, clearer and accurate to think without the use of symbols.  The difficulty comes in trying to express the process and/or results of this process in any kind on manner in order to communicate them:  so much gets lost in any translation!

It often takes me a long time to find a way to communicate the results of my thinking to anyone, in any language.  Sometimes, it takes me years – many years.  (This is why I sometimes respond with:  I know what I want to say, but it will take me a while to figure out how to say it…regardless of the language in question.)

However, often, I will reason things through in a language.  And, because it may be a complex thing that will take me a while to reason through at this slow pace, I will sort of set it into the background of my mind.  I find it impossible to do this in the language in which I happen to be functioning at that time:  there is so much interference that my ‘background’ chain of thinking gets derailed.  (Perhaps it’s my ADD…)

To make it easier, when I do the ‘background thinking’, I will set it in a different language than the one I happen to be functioning in at that time.

When I was doing business internationally, I often altered the ‘background’ processing language between the ones I was sufficiently ‘natural’ in to do this with (these differed over time).  Or, if I had a conversation with a business associate in one language, then went on to talk to somebody else in another one, I would continue to analyze our conversation (and the proposed deal) in the language I had conducted it in (even if I were not ‘natural’ in it, because the details were in that language).  This was very useful, as it allowed me to analyze several situations at the same time.

When, later, I would analyze the results of my thoughts and build a cohesive, cross-referenced picture in my mind (abandoning symbolic language), I noticed that my analysis would often differ, based solely on the language I had done it in.

So, I thought about it – quite obsessively – for a while.  OK, years.

It soon became clear to me that my analysis was affected by the ‘colouring’ of words in the various languages.  The less ‘natural’ I was in that specific language, the less ‘coloured’ the reasoning would be – but it would also be much less nuanced.

I have often wondered if this is ‘normal’ to all humans, if this is ‘natural’ to Aspies’, or if my brain is simply wired funny.  And, I would greatly appreciate any feedback on this from other people who have even remotely similar experiences.

In conclusion:  for years, I have been saying that the ‘colouring’ of words affects our reasoning on a profound level and that we ought to pay more attention to this phenomenon.

2 Responses to “Thinking in a Foreign Language Makes Decisions More Rational”

  1. Pondering Prose Says:

    Yes, thinking in music inhibits processing. See my blog post on synaesthesia.

    Xanthippa says: Thans – can you supply a link?

  2. CodeSlinger Says:


    Yes, the colouring of words is crucial. Choosing among formally equivalent wordings allows us to convey very subtle shades of meaning without making them explicit.

    For example, “that’s not true” is quite different from “that’s a lie.”

    Somehow, there is blame implied by the second wording, but not by the first. However the formal meanings, or the surface readings, are exactly the same.

    Cultural Marxism has used this effect to great advantage. One cannot, for example, hear “global warming denier” without dealing with the emotional baggage that goes along with “holocaust denier.”

    It works the other way around, too. Instead of “good” and “bad,” we are taught to say “appropriate” and “inappropriate.” However, due to this usage, these seemingly neutral words have acquired the emotional colouring of “good” and “bad.” Thus the word “inappropriate” has become a way to express moral condemnation while pretending to remain non-judgemental.

    However, I don’t believe that we think more rationally in languages we know less well. Quite the contrary.

    I think that, in each case, we respond to all the shades of meaning we are aware of. However, in the less familiar language, we are aware of less shades of meaning. Therefore, in the less familiar language, our interpretation of the phrasing will more closely match the formal meaning. This will make our processing seem more rational in a study like the one you cited.

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