Yoda: Thinking in a Foreign Language Improves Decisions

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Maybe we should stop worrying about analysts w second language capabilities and insist that policymakers have a second language.

Thinking in foreign language makes decisions more rational

To judge a risk more clearly, it may help to consider it in a foreign language.

A series of experiments on more than 300 people from the US and Korea found that thinking in a second language reduced deep-seated, misleading biases that unduly influence how risks and benefits are perceived.

“Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue?” asked psychologists led by Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago in an April 18 Psychological Science study.

“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.

Psychologists say human reasoning is shaped by two distinct modes of thought: one that’s systematic, analytical and cognition-intensive, and another that’s fast, unconscious and emotionally charged.

In light of this, it’s plausible that the cognitive demands of thinking in a non-native, non-automatic language would leave people with little leftover mental horsepower, ultimately increasing their reliance on quick-and-dirty cogitation.

Equally plausible, however, is that communicating in a learned language forces people to be deliberate, reducing the role of potentially unreliable instinct. Research also shows that immediate emotional reactions to emotively charged words are muted in non-native languages, further hinting at deliberation.

. . . . . . .

The researchers believe a second language provides a useful cognitive distance from automatic processes, promoting analytical thought and reducing unthinking, emotional reaction.

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Phi Beta Iota:  Integrity is not just about people making decisions.  It is about the whole — the context, the clarity of communication, the diversity of views, the integrity of all feedback loops.  Today there is very little integrity in the process of intelligence – on those rare occasions when it actually exists — and there is zero integrity in the policy process, something Paul Pillar and Morton Halperin (among many others) have documented nicely.

See Also:

Morton Halperin, Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy (Brookings, 2006)

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)

Paul Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform (Columbia, 2011)

Phi Beta Iota: Journal: Politics & Intelligence–Partners Only When Integrity is Central to Both