The Foreign Language Effect in Judgements of Risk and Benefit

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Centre for Decision Research

Constantinos Hadjichristidis is a visiting lecturer at Leeds University Business School and an associate professor at the University of Trento. His main research interests lie in the field of judgement and decision making, which he approaches from a psychological perspective. Constantinos recently delivered a seminar on the foreign language effect in judgements of risk and benefit as part of the Centre for Decision Research's seminar series.

Participants at the Annual Meeting 2016 of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Photo credit: WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/Benedikt von Loebell

The European Council will be meeting in Brussels tomorrow and on Friday to agree on a new deal for the UK in the EU and to discuss the ongoing migration and refugee crisis.

At international meetings such as these, and global events like the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting which was held last month in in Davos, Switzerland, world leaders are often participating in important conversations on highly charged and sensitive topics in foreign languages. Does this aspect of international organisations shape the decisions they make?

Research I conducted with my colleagues Janet Geipel, VUmc University Amsterdam, and Lucia Savadori, University of Trento, suggests that it might. We presented Italian students with 26 hazards, such as ‘travelling by aeroplane’, ‘climate change’ and ‘biotechnology.’ The catch was that about half of the students received the hazards in a foreign language that they knew well (English), while the rest in their native language (Italian).

Overall, we found that using a foreign language instead of one’s native language reduces the intensity of emotions. If people’s emotions are reduced, then they make different judgements and decisions. For example, we found that participants judged technologies such as nuclear power as less risky and more beneficial when thinking about it in their native language than in a foreign language.

What might be driving this effect? Research on risk and benefit perception suggests that people judge the risks and benefits of a technology by relying on their (positive or negative) feelings about the hazard. If the technology triggers overall a negative feeling, then this would signal danger and lead people to judge high risk and low benefit. If the technology triggers overall a positive feeling, then this would signal safety and lead people to judge low risk and high benefit.

Estimating risk and benefit based on affect is known as the affect heuristic - a mental shortcut people make, drawing on strong memories of positive or negative experiences. One possible explanation is that participants in both language conditions used the affect heuristic to judge the risk and benefit of hazards; it’s just that the input to this heuristic was more positive when the hazards were described in a foreign language.

Returning to the opening question, it is possible that participants of international meetings feel less emotional when holding discussions in a foreign language.  This reduced emotional intensity can potentially undermine their decisions – at least to the extent that their decisions require them to be in touch with their feelings.

Clearly more studies are needed to test whether this effect extends to the risk and benefit perceptions of experts. Still, this preliminary evidence raises the possibility that as we speak, international decision-making and public policy is swayed by the use of a foreign language. Could it be that because of that, some risks are underweighted or fly under the radar? Maybe. Certainly it is a “maybe” worth investigating. For further information, you can read the full article online. 

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.