Reasoning

How to stomp out foolish business moves

January 21, 2014: 1:18 PM ET

Emotions often creep into business decisions, usually for the worse. One solution? Make your decisions in a second language.

By Ian Mount

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FORTUNE -- Note to CEOs: When your strategy team is making a big decision, ask them to talk it over in their second language.

That's the upshot of an article published in the February issue of the journal Cognition. The article, which was titled "'Piensa' twice: On the foreign language effect in decision making, found that when people use their non-native second language, the decisions they make are more logical and less affected by emotional biases. In a sense, they hew closer to John Stuart Mills' idealized homo economicus (economic man).

"We found that in almost all economic problems that imply some kind of emotionality, in which intuition leads us to make decisions that aren't the best, people using a second language were less affected," said Albert Costa, one of the paper's lead authors and head of the Speech Production and Bilingualism group at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra University.

Costa and his cohort were inspired to look into the economic side of bilingual decision-making by a 2012 Psychological Science article by a group of psychologists led by Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago.

In that study, the authors used a "framing" test called the "Asian disease problem," in which bilingual subjects are asked two questions: First, whether they would develop Medicine A, which has a 100% chance to save 200,000 out of 600,000 people, or Medicine B, which has a 33% chance of saving all 600,000 people and a 66.6% chance of saving no one at all. Second, whether they would develop Medicine A, with which 400,000 of the 600,000 people will definitely die, or Medicine B, with which there is a 33.3% chance that no one will die and a 66.6% chance that all 600,000 will.

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Although the questions are statistically identical, subjects more often chose Medicine A in the first question and Medicine B in the second when they used their native language. That's because the framing of the question activates people's "loss aversion," an emotional bias that leads us to take more risks to avoid losses than to acquire gains.

But when the subjects answered these questions in a second language, they did so more logically: They didn't change their answers based on how the question was framed.

Costa and his team took this further. First, they repeated the "Asian disease problem" in economic terms (changing "lives" to "euros"). They found that in a second language, the number of people who changed their answer between frames fell from 15% to 6%.

Then they ran a Holt-Laury Test, which examines how loss aversion affects our ability to make economic decisions under risk and uncertainty. In the test, subjects are asked to choose between two lotteries at 10 different odds (Lottery A, which offers a 1/10 chance to win $2.00 and 9/10 of $1.60, or Lottery B, which offers 1/10 of winning $3.85 and 9/10 of 10¢; the odds are then tilted to 2/10 and 8/10, 3/10 and 7/10, etc. until they are flipped).

Figuring the expected payoff logically, one should choose Lottery A the first four times and Lottery B the last six. But people generally pick Lottery A several more times than they should because it "feels" safer. At least they do it that way in their native language. When Costa and his colleagues had participants use a second language, the emotional effect of "loss aversion" dropped and the subjects switched to Lottery B sooner.

So what does this mean for business?

"If you make decisions in a second language in business, you can better block the intuitive biases that will lead you to wrong responses," Costa said. "You can distance yourself a bit more and say, 'Hold on.'"

When I asked Costa if it would be good to push employees considering a new strategy, for example, to speak to each other in a second language while making decisions, he nodded vigorously.

"I would do it. I would. There are obviously other ways of doing it, but this is free," he told me. "When you want to distance yourself and not be emotional, move into a second language."

This effect also extends into entrepreneurial and investment decisions. For entrepreneurs, Costa says, considering their plans in a second language might not stop them from following a dream, but it could help them be more prudent.

"You would probably be more cautious in a second language. It's not that you wouldn't take risks, but that you would take them in a more logical manner," he said.

And at deal time, if you speak two languages, you might chose one over the other depending on whether you're pitching or being pitched.

"If I wanted to convince someone to invest in something, I would speak to him in his first language. On the other hand, if someone was pitching me, I'd say, 'Fine, but talk in my second language,'" Costa said.

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It's worth noting that using a second language doesn't make one better at all decisions. When solving simple, unemotional questions, people perform equally well in their native and second languages. And, Costa noted, it's not that some languages are intrinsically more logical than others -- German more than Spanish, for example. Rather, it's that using a second language helps you block out emotional noise.

In the end, this is one more reason for Americans to learn a second language. Only about 20% of the population is considered bilingual, and most of that group had the advantage of growing up speaking a language other than English at home.

Today, Costa and his colleagues are taking on moral judgments. In a classic test, subjects are asked whether they would divert a barreling train from one track, where it would kill five people, to another, where it would kill one. Then they are asked if they would push a fat man in front of a barreling train, if they knew killing him would save five people. When asked in their native language, 80% of people answer 'yes' to the first question and 'no' to the second.

But in their second language, 40% of test subjects say they would give the guy a push.

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