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Think Carefully… But in a Different Language

We make thousands of decisions everyday. In fact, researchers at Cornell University estimate that we make about 226.7 decisions regarding food alone. However, some decisions might hold more significance than others – you might put more thought into selecting a house to buy than choosing a pair of shoes to wear to the supermarket (or maybe not). It is likely that the consequences of these big decisions make us want to think rationally, to make careful choices.

This isn’t always easy to do because of the myriad of cognitive biases that unconsciously influence the many decisions that we make daily. Language plays an important role in determining how strongly these biases affect our cognition, and this is evident in how even the language that we think in impacts our decision-making. While we might assume that individuals would make the same decisions regardless of what language they use, research shows that thinking in a foreign language can reduce cognitive biases and encourage deliberation.

We are faced with an endless number of decisions to make. (Source.)

One might assume that thinking in foreign languages would actually hinder our ability to make rational decisions. Using a foreign language naturally requires more effort because it is a controlled process. This means that it is a conscious, systematic action, and it requires more mental resources than automatic processes, such as using a native tongue. Therefore, it’s possible that non-native speakers would devote more of their cognitive resources to simply producing coherent language instead of focusing on thinking. This would make them more susceptible to cognitive bias.

However, it turns out that the opposite is true. Because they are not processed automatically, foreign languages are able to act as distancing mechanisms that prompt us to process information more deliberately (Shin & Kim, 2017). This distancing diminishes the influence of biases, such as the framing effect and loss aversion, and helps us to make more rational decisions (Keysar et al., 2012).

What is the Framing Effect?

The framing effect is a cognitive bias in which how information is presented influences what an individual chooses from a set of options (Plous, 1993). When an option is framed negatively, individuals are more likely to avoid risks. On the other hand, they are more likely to desire risks when an option is framed positively. For example, a customer at a grocery store might purchase an item labeled “50% of $100” instead of another simply marked “$50”. The two items are the same price, but the framing of the first option is more desirable. However, studies show that foreign languages diminish the framing effect and that individuals would be equally likely to choose the “safe,” risk-free option regardless of how a scenario is framed (Keysar et al., 2012).

How a situation is framed can be quite deceiving. (Source.)

What is Loss Aversion?

Loss aversion is a cognitive bias that describes how individuals perceive the pain of loss to be much greater than the satisfaction of an equal gain. For example, if someone were to lose $200, the impact (psychological, emotional, etc.) of that loss would outweigh the impact of gaining $200. However, just like with the framing effect, there is evidence that foreign languages make individuals less loss averse.

So How Exactly Do Foreign Languages Lessen the Effect of Cognitive Biases?

As mentioned earlier, the inherent stress in using a foreign language suggests that individuals would be more vulnerable to cognitive biases, but this is not the case. Biases such as the framing effect and loss aversion are less likely to influence the choices of individuals thinking in a foreign language. This is because foreign languages can psychologically distance individuals from the decision being made, reducing emotional reactions and promoting deliberation.

Our emotions heavily influence the choices that we make. In some cases, they are necessary and appropriate for the situation. In others, emotional reactions hinder our ability to make reasoned choices, as demonstrated by our aversion to loss. Thinking in foreign languages inhibits our emotional response to situations because they distance us from the emotional associations that we’ve established in our native language. As a result, we are able to make more practical, utilitarian decisions with decreased influence from cognitive biases. So the next time you find yourself with a difficult decision to make, try approaching the situation from a different perspective – or with another language.


Ayçiçegˇi, A., & Harris, C. (2004). Brief Report: Bilinguals’ recall and recognition of emotion words. Cognition and Emotion, 18(7), 977-987. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930341000301

Díaz-Lago, M., & Matute, H. (2019). Thinking in a Foreign language reduces the causality bias. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 72(1), 41–51. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747021818755326

Keysar, B., Hayakawa, S. L., & An, S. G. (2012). The foreign-language effect: Thinking in a foreign tongue reduces decision biases. Psychological Science, 23(6), 661-668. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611432178

Plous, S. (1993). The psychology of judgment and decision making. Mcgraw-Hill Book Company.

Shin, H.I., Kim, J. (2017). Foreign Language Effect and Psychological Distance. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 46, 1339–1352. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10936-017-9498-7

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