Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Second Language Translates Into Clearer Thinking

• April 24, 2012 • 3:20 PM

New research finds people make more rational financial decisions when they consider their options using their second language.

Would you like to think more rationally, especially where your finances are concerned? Did you learn a second language in school — say, Spanish?

If so, University of Chicago researchers have a suggestion for you: Use Español.

A research team led by psychologist Boaz Keysar reports using one’s second language reduces or eliminates certain biases that otherwise infiltrate our decision-making. Specifically, our aversion to potential loss — a bias that can lead us to pass up promising opportunities for potential gains — diminishes as we ponder options in a language learned later in life.

“People who routinely make decisions in a foreign language rather than their native tongue might be less biased in their savings, investment, and retirement decisions,” the researchers write in the journal Psychological Science. “Over a long time horizon, this might very well be beneficial.”

Over six experiments, the researchers found the results held true for native English speakers who later learned Japanese, French, or Spanish, as well as Koreans who learned English.

One experiment featured 54 University of Chicago students who grew up speaking English but studied Spanish in junior high and high school. They were randomly assigned to perform the required task in English or Spanish.

Each participant was given 15 one-dollar bills. In successive rounds, they took one of the bills and chose whether to bet it on a coin toss (either “heads/cara” or “tails/cruz”). Those who guessed correctly kept the dollar and received an additional $1.50; those who guessed incorrectly lost the dollar. Participants who decided not to bet kept their one dollar and moved on to the next round.

Participants kept their winnings at the end of the experiment. In purely economic terms, the smart choice was to take the bet, which statistically would make them more money over all 15 rounds.

Apparently due to our ingrained aversion to loss, those who performed the experiment in English took the bet only 54 percent of the time.  However, those who did so in Spanish did so 71 percent of the time.

In the researchers’ view, our rational mind seems to take charge when we’re using a less-familiar language.

“Even when people fully comprehend the meaning of taboo words, reprimands, expressions of love, and advertising slogans, they react to them less emotionally in a foreign language,” they note. “This reduction in emotional response might … allow people to rely more on analytic processes when they make decisions.”

Something worth pondering as you manage the personal retirement savings in your Cuatrocientos uno (k).

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 24 • 2:00 PM

Retiring a National Crisis

We’re in the middle of a national retirement savings crisis, and as more businesses fail to offer retirement savings options, it will only get worse. How can we reverse this trend? Illinois might have a solution.


December 24 • 12:00 PM

Ignoring One of the Big Problems With Charter Schools

A top official in the New York State Comptroller’s Office has urged regulators to require more transparency on charter-school finances. The response has been, well, non-existent.


December 24 • 10:00 AM

The Cookies of Christmas Past

Grandma’s recipes are always better than Martha Stewart’s.


December 24 • 8:00 AM

Digital Culture: Inside the Subreddit Obsessed With Solving the ‘Serial’ Case

Hamilton Verissimo, a software engineer from New Zealand, joined Reddit just to participate in Serialpodcast, a virtual home for tens of thousands of subscribers with theories and interpretations about the hit podcast.



December 24 • 6:00 AM

A Jewish Christmas

Chinese food, movies, and the assertion of an identity.


December 24 • 4:00 AM

We Need to Get Better at Password Protection

This whole Sony hack should teach us, above all else, a lesson on password security.



December 23 • 2:00 PM

The Paternity Leave Stimulus

Some policymakers (and most recently a Brazilian mayor) have argued that paternity leave policies would disrupt economic productivity. Quite the opposite, actually. In fact, it’s a policy that can boost economies, empower women, and make families happier.


December 23 • 12:00 PM

Why New York State Just Banned Fracking—and Why Others May Soon Follow

After years of delays and debate, Governor Andrew Cuomo decides that the risks outweigh the rewards.


December 23 • 9:40 AM

A Brief History of the Christmas Controversy

Can Christmas’ pagan roots explain its increasing secularization today?


December 23 • 8:00 AM

On Cuba and Baseball Capitalism

After a long wait, a Cuba-to-United States baseball pipeline appears to be on the horizon. That’s a good thing, right?


December 23 • 7:06 AM

Coming Soon: 5 Ways to Understand ISIS


December 23 • 6:00 AM

The Puzzle of the Written Word

In his new book, A Muse & A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic, Peter Turchi explains the riddling experience of literature.


December 23 • 4:06 AM

Most Diabetic Seniors Think Health Tracking Apps Are a Good Idea

But almost none of them actually use apps to help manage their diabetes.


December 22 • 2:00 PM

The Paradox of Women’s Sexuality in Breastfeeding Advocacy and Breast Cancer Campaigns

We capitalize on the sexualization of the breast to raise awareness about breast cancer, yet we cringe at the idea of a woman nursing her child.


December 22 • 1:00 PM

Keep That E-Reader Out of Bed and You’ll Feel Better in the Morning

New research finds e-readers, like other light-emitting electronic devices, can disrupt normal sleep patterns.


December 22 • 12:25 PM

Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it’s time to stop.


December 22 • 12:00 PM

Pill Mills and the Rise of Controlled Substance Use in Medicare

Despite warnings about abuse, Medicare covered more prescriptions for potent controlled substances in 2012 than it did in 2011. The program’s top prescribers often have faced disciplinary action or criminal charges related to their medical practices.


December 22 • 10:00 AM

Economics at the North Pole: Are Santa’s Elves Slaves?

A pair of economists seek to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought in order to predict what sort of environments increase incentives for labor coercion.


December 22 • 8:00 AM

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.


December 22 • 7:04 AM

Coming Soon: This Is How Gangs End


December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


Follow us


We Need to Get Better at Password Protection

This whole Sony hack should teach us, above all else, a lesson on password security.

Most Diabetic Seniors Think Health Tracking Apps Are a Good Idea

But almost none of them actually use apps to help manage their diabetes.

Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it's time to stop.

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.