Logic in Another Language

This post is especially for Piercello, who is working on a project around human reason. It will also interested Cassidy, though, because it's a long-time subject of interest of hers.

A study of intelligence analysis suggests that we are more rational when evaluating things in our second language, not our native tongue.
The three groups of participants had English as a first language and Japanese as a second, Korean as a first language and English as a second or English as a first language and French as a second, indicating that this effect is replicable within and across language family boundaries.

So why, then, do we make more rational, less biased decisions in our second language than in our first? It largely has to do with the lack of “emotional resonance” that we derive from foreign language text. Literature on second language acquisition unanimously agrees that people perceive messages delivered in their second language as less emotional (and consequently less impactful) than messages delivered in their first language; this concept applies to everything from political opinion to curse words.
Emphasis added.


Piercello said...

This is fascinating, thanks. Off to read!

raven said...

I wonder if it is subliminal associations they miss? Does it depend on level of fluency?

Grim said...

I think it's the need to think about what the words mean in a different way. When I read English, and I see a curse word, it sounds in my mind just as if someone had said it -- with all the intended emotional force.

When I read French, and I run across a curse word, there's a filter because my mind is rationally evaluating each word to determine what it means. So instead of 'feeling' the word, I think about the word, and then I think about what the author intends by including it here. It's a more rational process.

raven said...

Ah- yes- you read French in digital, and English in analog- like this-
I like a analog gauge, because the position of the needle, in a relative sense, tells you all you need to know- but a number, that has to go through the interpretative filter. Needle at 9 o'clock and in the red, as opposed to airspeed 178 kts.

Piercello said...

Thanks again for the post, Grim.

Having now read both the article and the paper behind it, I think they both fit reasonably well with my thesis.

As the basis of my project, I argue that human irrationality is (counterintuitively) fundamental and has two distinct sources: informational bottlenecks in the mental architecture ("Rationality Is Dead, Long Live Rationality") and emotional influences, also caused by the same mental architecture (("Oh, Humanity! Three Recalibrations of "Rational Self-Interest").

The ultimate goal of my project is to tease out four universals of said mental architecture, which are listed at the end of the second essay, and figure out how the practical logic of their interaction applies to politics, economics, education, and other human institutions. The two essays I have written to date are overviews; details will be back-filled in a series of posts, which will be cross-linked as I write them.

The key to my analysis is as set of distinctions I am trying to make among the making of rational arguments (possible in French or otherwise), the performing of rational actions (also possible), and the making of rational decisions (not possible, for informational and emotional reasons). Making these distinctions well is going to be challenging, but Grim's post gives me a good opening. I'll try to write a post in reply by the end of the weekend, between concerts.

For now, I'll predict that the paper's second-language elimination of the emotionally driven "framing effect" would not apply to a population that is bi-lingual from birth, both because of fluency and because of a deeper network of emotional associations with both languages.

I'll also predict that other types of emotional and informational confounds (e.g., Kahneman's biases and things like the "trolley problem") are not affected by presentation in second languages.

My thanks to Grim and to the Hall.


DL Sly said...

I suppose it's an anecdotal thing. Having been around too many spanish speakers for comfort, and also studiously averse to the language for personal reasons, curse words written in spanish hold the same emotional impact and derogatory meaning as any in English.

Just my .03.
Keep the change.

douglas said...

Piercello, Tangential to the ideas about the relationship between our instinctual selves and our rational selves, I suppose an important part of our instinct that makes us not rational by nature is that it's simply easier (or at least seems like it would be at the time) to not be rational. Nature loves simplicity and Humans are lazy by nature- it's simply more efficient.

I really enjoyed those two essays, looking forward to the next.

Piercello said...

Douglas, thanks for the kind words!

I agree, except that I'd pedantically replace "rational selves" with "rational capacity," and "easier not to be rational" with the more precise but much more cumbersome "easier not to go the (often extremely valuable) work of constructing bounded rational arguments and then using them to limit our behavior, ignoring all other input."

I'm really trying to enforce a structural distinction between the bounded logic of rationality (argument) and the equally bounded but much wider logic of human intelligence/instinct (which permits us to work within the bounds of rationality but does not permit us to live there). This is terminological heresy of the worst sort on several counts, but I will press on, for I think it reveals a series of important structural insights.

I'm going to try for about one essay a week.

douglas said...

"I agree, except that I'd pedantically replace "rational selves" with "rational capacity," and "easier not to be rational" with the more precise but much more cumbersome "easier not to go the (often extremely valuable) work of constructing bounded rational arguments and then using them to limit our behavior, ignoring all other input." "

Like I said, Humans are lazy ;)

I certainly see something in where you are trying to go, and it is difficult to not only have the discussion, but develop the correct terms- perhaps more difficult (at least to do so in an effective way). I think you're doing quite well thus far.