So how does French or Japanese or Spanish help? One would think that having to puzzle out a question in a foreign language would make people more likely to foul up the answer. Not so, say Keysar and his co-authors. Cognitive biases such as loss aversion are deeply emotional responses, and understanding a second language requires conscious thought in a way that processing our native tongue doesn’t. Because we have to think more to make sense of the question when it’s in a foreign language, we automatically think carefully about the answer—we don’t just answer based on our cognitive biases.
“A foreign language is like a distancing mechanism,” says Keysar. “It’s almost like you’re a slightly different person. You’re removed from yourself.” Interestingly, other researchers have found that you can get a similar effect by writing a question not in a different language but just in a difficult-to-read font.
Asked how people might put his findings to use, Keysar says it’s too early for recommendations to inoculate people against making silly mistakes. Thinking through things in a second language, then comparing the answer to what someone else comes up with in his native language, is one idea. Not everyone has a second language to use, though, and for those people there are other distancing mechanisms: Phrase a question so it describes something in the distant future, or write it in a font that a reader has to puzzle over.
Keysar emphasizes he’s not arguing that distancing people from the questions they’re considering will always lead to better decisions. On the contrary, a large body of experimental evidence shows that emotions are immensely valuable in making good decisions—that gut instincts derive from hard-earned experience and are ignored at our peril.
The trick, then, is to figure out which questions are best considered in the fumbling cadences of our second language and which can be entrusted to our mother tongue.