How Does a Foreign Language Affect Your Decision-Making?

Aug 29, 2023

How Do We Make Decisions?

We are constantly making decisions in our lives from the mundane to the significant. It can be from choosing a dish from a restaurant menu to deciding where you want to live. We make decisions based on information that is largely communicated linguistically. In general people respond differently to different problems with preferences, choices, and judgments largely affected by how information is presented to us. Our brains form thoughts in two different ways as Daniel Kahneman describes in his best-selling behavioral science book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He calls them System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 is fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, unconscious, and intuitive. System 2 is slow, effortful, logical, calculating, conscious, controlled, and deliberate. System 1 and System 2 processes are constantly at play in our daily lives when we make decisions. To put it simply, on some occasions we are intuitive using our gut feeling and on the other hand we are careful and deliberate, double checking the facts of the situation analyzing the choices and options we have. Each of these processes depends on numerous factors, for example our mood during a certain time of day, if we have eaten, the amount of sleep we got the night before, the degree of stress we are currently enduring, the level of urgency and demand in the moment, familiarity of a situation, these things affect us and do not always favor the same responses or give the same weight to the choices we make.

Does Using a Foreign Language Impact Decision Making?

Research suggests that yes you would make different decisions comparing between your native language and a non-native language. The foreign language effect is how using a foreign language affects System 1 and 2 processes to our decisions. Various decision-making domains for foreign languages affect us. For example, using a foreign language changes our decisions when dealing with risk. Foreign-language processing reduces the impact of intuition and/or increases the impact of deliberation on people’s choices. This additional language layer establishes a different set of outcomes. How does using a foreign versus a native language affect our revealed preferences, choices, and judgments? In principle, if information is understood, the language in which it is presented should not be a major factor affecting our decisions. For example, imagine that you must decide between having surgery or instead undergo a noninvasive treatment. You are presented with the facts available and carefully evaluate the benefits and risks while considering your overall preference. In this context, your decision should be independent of whether you are interacting with a doctor in your native or foreign language. However, this is not the case. A foreign language can modify your decision-making tendencies. It can affect you from individual decision making to self-regulation. For example, foreign language processing may reduce attention to attractive stimuli because it involves an increase of memory load in the early phases of information processing.

Another example is foreign language processing affects memory retrieval due to the language-dependent nature of human memory. Foreign language processing affects both System 1 and System 2 thinking. However, using a foreign language may lean towards System 2 thinking making more delineated decisions. Making it less likely to use System 1 thinking. Does foreign language use reduce the impact of System 1 and/or increase the impact of System 2? Reading, writing, listening, and speaking are more costly and largely less fluent in a foreign language than in a native language. Although there is still debate about the effects of processing difficulty on decision making, some researchers have suggested that processing difficulty is used as a signal to engage in more System 2 thinking, which reduces the effects of System 1. Some research suggest that foreign-language processing recruits brain areas related to control processes to a greater extent than a native-language. According to this view, the foreign-language effect could be the result of a decrease in processing fluency that prompts people to slow down and think more carefully about the decision-making situation.

How Does Emotion Affect Decision Making?

Emotion is another major factor associated with the foreign language effect that can alter the interaction between System 1 and 2 processing. People often use their emotional reaction to a given problem to guide their decision being System 1 instead of engaging in more deliberative reasoning being System 2. We usually go with our feelings regarding what is good or bad rather than considering the options. Considering this foreign language usage brings out a milder emotional response compared to those processed in a native language. Foreign-language use lowers emotional reactivity, for example, reading emotionally charged passages in a foreign language prompts less activation in brain areas related to emotional processing in the amygdala. This has been shown in decision-making contexts particularly involving gains and losses. If we agree with this the foreign language effect reduces emotional reactivity. In result this could reduce reactivity in people’s decisions with more System 2 thinking. Processing difficulty and emotionality may have collateral effects on the way people relate to and construe a given situation. Particularly a foreign language use may increase psychological distance by taking a more objective perspective of a situation in a more abstract way.

Foreign-language use can induce psychological distance affecting people’s decisions in a similar way. It can create a detachment effect affecting the contributions of System 1 and 2 processing. Foreign-language effect stems from changes in the weights that System 1 and 2 processes have during decision making. Please note the foreign language effect is still debated and there are many other factors such as cultural biases, anchoring, availability, conjunction fallacy, loss aversion, framing, and sunk cost which affect our decision-making process.

How Does It Affect Companies?

Millions of employees globally use a non-native language in their profession. This could be from the immigrant laborer to the company worker. Interestingly, it has been over a decade now since Rakuten Group Inc. made English its official internal language. While the company has expanded its business it hires employees who are fluent in English and trains its non-native employees the majority who are Japanese to become fluent in English. Rakuten uses English for all documents and all meetings including those attended only by Japanese employees. Implementing English has improved communication with overseas branch offices while a sense of unity was easily created among employees including foreigners. This initiative helped Rakuten hire not only Japanese people hoping to make use of their English skills but also talented foreigners. When there are employees with different cultures, experiences, and ideas it is said to have helped increase the company’s problem-solving abilities. While employees of different nationalities can communicate in English, achieving a deep understanding between them is sometimes more difficult than between Japanese employees. For that reason, the company has been implementing training to help employees understand diversity and different cultures following the use of English as an official internal language. Other Japanese companies such as Fast Retailing Co., the operator of the Uniqlo clothing chain, cosmetics maker Shiseido Co., and electronics maker Sharp Corp. are currently making English their official internal language. There isn’t a doubt internalizing English into Japanese businesses has benefited companies who have adopted the practice. The use of English has inspired employees to be less insular and has enabled corporations to compete more effectively internationally. For example, English possesses fewer power markers than Japanese. Adopting English helps to break down the hierarchical barriers that are entrenched in Japanese society and enhances efficiency. However, adjusting to a new language is cumbersome and awkward initially as everyone works to attain the required level of proficiency in English.

What Is The Future of The Foreign Language Effect?

The foreign language effect is likely affecting companies around the world with their decision making. Although, which decision-making contexts are sensitive to language proficiency? It is reasonable to predict that when language proficiency approaches native-like levels, language status should have a minimal effect. This may depend on the context of learning and frequency of usage. On the other hand, low language proficiency may pose a heavy burden on processing, reducing the availability of the resources needed to engage in System 2. To get a better picture further research should be conducted with medium-high levels of foreign-language proficiency groups to explore the role of language proficiency in the interaction between System 1 and System 2 thinking. If foreign-language use can indeed help people engage in an objective and deliberative way of thinking, then this might help promote self-control and avoidance of temptation. Although foreign-language use may elicit System 2 thinking, the cognitive load and anxiety often felt when interacting in a foreign language may end up leading to more automatic and less thoughtful decision with System 1. This means people’s choices would not always be better in a foreign-language context. There are times it is best to go with our gut, and other times it is better to wait and consider our options in a thoughtful manner. Whichever the case is understanding yourself may be the initial step to take. Exploring the roles of cognitive fluency, cognitive load, emotional reactivity, and their interactions with foreign-language processing will help advance these explanations. As employees reach native level proficiency in English will they make better decisions? We will see how this experiment will develop with these Japanese companies.

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