I speak Spanish reasonably well but I find it very tiring … which suggests that I probably think more clearly and ethically in Spanish than in English.
Like so many things, it’s all related to our two different modes of thinking: System1 and System 2. System 1 is fast and efficient and operates below the level of consciousness. It makes a great majority of our decisions, typically without any input from our conscious selves. We literally make decisions without knowing that we’re making decisions.
System 2 is all about conscious thought. We bring information into System 2, think it through, and make reasoned decisions. System 2 uses a lot of calories; it’s hard work. As Daniel Kahneman says, “Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats; they can do it but they’d prefer not to.”
English, of course, is my native language. (American English, that is). It’s second nature to me. It’s easy and fluid. I can think in English without thinking about it. In other words, English is the language of my System 1. At this point in my life, it’s the only language in my System 1 and will probably remain so.
To speak Spanish, on the other hand, I have to invoke System 2. I have to think about my word choice, pronunciation, phrasing, and so on. It’s hard work and wears me out. I can do it but I would have to live in Spain for a while for it to become easy and fluid. (That’s not such a bad idea, is it?)
You may remember that System 1 makes decisions using heuristics or simple rules of thumb. System 1 simplifies everything and makes snap judgments. Most of the time, those judgments are pretty good but, when they’re wrong, they’re wrong in consistent ways. System 1, in other words, is the source of biases that we all have.
To overcome these biases, we have to bring the decision into System 2 and consider it rationally. That takes time, effort, and energy and, oftentimes, we don’t do it. It’s easy to conclude that someone is a jerk. It’s more difficult to invoke System 2 to imagine what that person’s life is like.
So how does language affect all this? I can only speak Spanish in my rational, logical, conscious System 2. When I’m thinking in Spanish, all my rational neurons are firing. I tend to think more carefully, more thoughtfully, and more ethically. It’s tiring.
When I think in English, on the other hand, I could invoke my System 2 but I certainly don’t have to. I can easily use heuristics in English but not in Spanish. I can jump to conclusions in English but not in Spanish.
The seminal article on this topic was published in 2012 by three professors from the University of Chicago. They write, “Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue? It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using…. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases.”
So, it’s true: I’m a better person in Spanish.
Last week a man was swallowed by a sinkhole while sleeping in Florida. This week, I’m more worried about sinkholes in Florida than I am about driving on icy roads in Colorado. Is that logical?
It’s not logical but it’s very real. Sometimes a story is so vivid, so unexpected, so emotionally fraught, and so available that it dominates our thinking. Even though it’s extremely unlikely, it becomes possible, maybe even probable in our imaginations. As Daniel Kahneman points out, “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality.”
What makes a phenomenon more real in our heads than it is in reality? Several things. It’s vivid — it creates a very clear image in our mind. It’s creepy — the vivid image is unpleasant and scary. It’s a “bad” death as opposed to a “good” death. We read about deaths every day. When we read about a kindly old nonagenarian dying peacefully after a lifetime of doing good works, it seems natural and honorable. It’s a good death. When we read about someone killed in the prime of life in bizarre or malevolent circumstances, it’s a “bad” death. A bad death is much more vivid than a good death.
But what really makes an image dominate our minds is availability. How easy is it to bring an instance to mind? If the thought is readily available to us, we deem it to be likely. What’s readily available? Anything that’s in the popular media and the topic of discussion with friends and colleagues. If your colleagues around the water cooler say, “Hey, did you hear about the guy in the sinkhole?” you’ve already begun to blow it out of proportion.
Availability can also compound itself in what Kahneman calls an availability cascade. The story itself becomes the story. Suppose that a suspicious compound — let’s call it chenesium — is found in the food supply. Someone writes that chenesium causes cancer in rats when administered in huge doses. Plus, it’s a vividly scary form of cancer — it affects the eyeballs and makes you look like a zombie. People start writing letters to the editor about the grave danger. Now it’s in the media. People start marching on state capitals, demanding action. The media write about the marching. People read about the marching and assume that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The Surgeon General issues a statement saying the danger is minimal. But the populace — now worked into a frenzy — denounce her as a lackey of chenesium producers. Note that the media is no longer writing about chenesium. Rather, they’re writing about the controversy surrounding chenesium. The story keeps growing because it’s a good story. It’s a perfect storm.
So, what to do? Unfortunately, facts don’t matter a whole lot by this point. As Kahneman notes (quoting Jonathan Haidt), “The emotional tail wags the rational dog.” The only thing to do is to let it play out … sooner or later, another controversy will arise to take chenesium’s place.
At the personal level, we can spare ourselves a lot of worry by pondering the availability bias and remembering that facts do matter. We can look up the probability of succumbing to a sinkhole. If we do, we’ll realize that the danger is vanishingly small. There’s nothing to worry about. Still, I’m not going to Florida anytime soon.