In his bestselling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011) notes that our brains contain two systems of thought: System 1 which “… operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” (Id. at 20) and System 2 which “…allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations….” (Id. at 21.)

Thus, while System 1 is quick, automatic and requires little or no effort, System 2 is deliberative, effortful and requires our attention and concentration. (Id. at 22-23.). As a consequence, most of our cognitive errors and biases occur within System 1 since it operates unconsciously and cannot be turned off. System 2, on the other hand, because it requires a lot of effort and attention, will literally deplete our mental energy through our expenditure of glucose. When this occurs, we will fall back on System 1 for decision making and being tired, and hungry, will make poor decisions. We will also fall back into System 1 when System 2 faces ambiguity, uncertainty, hi-risk or emotion. 

I explain System 1 and 2, simplistically, as it explains a study I came upon in the May 17, 2014 edition of The Economist entitled “Gained in Translation”. The study determined that when we have to make a decision speaking a second language (in which we are conversant but not as fluent as in our native tongue), we tend to be more morally and emotionally detached.

Dr. Albert Costa of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain and his colleagues used the following well-known moral challenge:

…you are on a footbridge watching a trolley speeding down a track that will kill five unsuspecting people. You can push a fat man over the bridge onto the tracks to save the five. (You cannot stop the trolley by jumping yourself, only the fat man is heavy enough.) Would you do it? (Id.)

As the article explains:

Most people quail at the idea of shoving the man to his death. But alter the scenario a bit, and reactions change. People are more likely to throw a switch that would divert the trolley on to another track where it will kill only one person. The utilitarian calculation is identical-but the physical and emotional distance from the killing makes throwing the switch much more popular than throwing the man. (Id.)

Dr. Costa conducted an experiment to see if this result would be different if the person was responding in a second language. He and his colleagues interviewed 317 people, “all of whom spoke two languages- mostly English plus one of Spanish, Korean or French. Half of each group was randomly assigned the dilemma in their native tongue. The other half answered the problem in their second language.” (Id.)

What the researchers discovered was that when the subjects were asked the dilemma in their native tongue, only 20% said they would push the fat man. However, when asked in their second language, the percentage jumped to 33%! (Id.)

Why? The researchers think it has to do with “… the difference between being merely competent in a foreign language and being fluent.” (Id.) The participants in the study were competent but not fluent in the second language. Having to speak the foreign language, the subjects were required to use System 2 thinking which requires much effort and a lot of mental energy. System 2 is also slower, providing more logical, more reasoned and detached thinking. (Think Dr. Spock of Star Trek fame!)

My conclusion is that either our System 1 does not kick in so that we are making decisions in a detached, logical fashion, or depending upon how much mental energy we have used up in System 2 (i.e. Glucose depletion), System 1 does kick in ( as is typical when we are tired) causing us to make intuitive, irrational and thus, very poor decisions. (Recall the bad decisions you have made when you are tired and hungry!) Or, in the face of  the  posible ambiguity and uncertainty brought about by using a second language, our brains default to System 1 causing us to make the “poor” decision!

The researchers further note that this study “… fits in with other research that speaking a foreign language boosts the second system-provided, that is, you don’t speak it as well as a native.” That is, in a foreign tongue, one tends to be more logical, and thus more psychological and emotionally distant from the issue at hand. (Id.)

So, the next time you have to make a decision in a second language, be careful; it may not be the same one you would make if you were using your native language.

…. Just something to think about.


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