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Northwestern University

Different language, different decision?

By Daniel P. Smith

Dec. 5, 2016 — When the recession hit in 2008, Boaz Keysar blamed his handling of his household’s financial losses on a seemingly unlikely culprit: the English language.

Because English was not his native tongue, Keysar told his unhappy wife, he was more inclined to take risks.

“If I was investing in Hebrew, I would have been more risk-averse,” quipped Keysar, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago.

While Keysar’s wife scoffed at this notion, the experience launched Keysar’s groundbreaking investigation into connections between language and decision-making, the dynamic interplay between how native or acquired language impacts cognition and reasoning.

On Nov. 30, Keysar presented his attention-grabbing research as the inaugural Distinguished Lecturer in Multilingualism and Language Learning at Northwestern.

How language shifts reasoning

Keysar’s 75-minute program, “Living in a Foreign Tongue: Decision-Making, Judgment and Ethical Choice in Native and Non-Native Language,” highlighted an area of research relevant to areas ranging from the daily choices we make to international diplomacy.

At least intuitively, Keysar long felt he made different decisions in English than he did in his native Hebrew language, and his work demonstrates that other multilinguals have a similar tendency, largely because emotional ties tend to diminish when communicating in a foreign language.

Keysar, director for the Multilingualism and Decision-Making Lab at the University of Chicago, shared sample cases from his team’s studies tied to financial and moral dilemmas. He presented, for instance, the classic case of a sinking ship and a lifeboat with only so many spots.

“Would you save five if it meant you had to kill one?” Keysar asked.

It turns out, Keysar’s research shows, that people are more utilitarian and prone to rational choices when using a foreign language.

“So speak to me in Hebrew if we’re ever in this situation,” Keysar joked to a crowd of some 150 that included undergraduates, graduate students and faculty from departments across the Northwestern campus.

Of course, Keysar allowed, the flip side is that many decisions benefit from the emotional system, which helps us learn how to avoid bad things.

“Using a foreign language,” Keysar said, “removes nativeness and dulls emotional connections, which are an important bridge to our decision-making.”

NU: A fitting host

John Paluch, co-chair of Northwestern’s Council on Language Instruction, noted the wide appeal of Keysar’s work to teachers and scholars across the University, as well as the ways that Keysar’s research emphasizes the value of exposure to foreign languages and cultures. Given that, Paluch said, Keysar was the ideal scholar to offer the series’ inaugural lecture.

“And particularly so, given Northwestern’s own examination of its position as a globally engaged university,” Paluch said.

Along with Weinberg College and the Buffett Institute for Global Studies, more than a dozen departments and campus organizations co-sponsored the event, a nod to the diverse interest in language research across Northwestern.

 “This event helps unite our community of language scholars and showcases our breadth and depth to a distinguished international researcher,” said Matthew Goldrick, chair of the Department of Linguistics.

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