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We tell fewer lies when we speak in a foreign language

We tell fewer lies when we speak in a foreign language

So reveals a study published on 1 July in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science involving Albert Costa, head of the Speech Production and Bilingualism research group and ICREA researcher, with members of his team and researchers from Israel, the Netherlands and the United States.

13.07.2018

Studies have been carried out on people’s dishonest behaviour without implicitly taking language into account. A study involving UPF researchers shows that people are more honest when they express themselves in a language that is not their own. The results of this research question the theories of ethical behaviour and the role of language in shaping behaviour.

Albert Costa, head of the Speech Production and Bilingualism research group (SPB) of the Center for Brain and Cognition (CBC) and ICREA research professor with the Department of Information and Communication Technologies (DTIC) at UPF, along with Joanna D.  Corey, PhD student and a member of his team, in conjunction with researchers from Israel, the Netherlands and the USA, is co-author of a study published on 1 July in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science that investigates people’s degree of dishonesty according to their language.

Native speakers of Hebrew, Korean, Spanish and English performed the study’s experimental tasks carried out in parallel in different countries and in different native languages. All the participants performed these tasks, half in their own language and the other half in a foreign language. For example, in Barcelona, 185 native Spanish speakers who know how to speak English participated, and so half of them did so in Spanish and the other half in English.

“Dishonest behaviour is associated with an automatic tendency that has a fast and intuitive emotional system. However, this tendency disappears when we use a foreign language, being less intuitive and automatic, and at the same time more analytical”

In a completely private setting, the test consisted of throwing a die, mentally scoring the value obtained. People received monetary remuneration according to the number they said they had obtained. Only the person knew the resultant number, “we will never know it”, says Costa. In the experiment, the participants could lie if it involved risk-free material benefits.

“The findings of our study are particularly relevant when we consider that many people have to make decisions that affect us in a context of a foreign language, usually English”

If everyone had told the truth, using probabilistic calculations the researchers know that a more or less uniform distribution of the numbers on the die would result, however “what we found is that when the explanation of the given number is obtained on the die is given in a foreign language, the highest values ​​were lower than when the explanation was given in a native language”, comments Costa.  These results were clearly significant in all experimental samples at all of the centres participating in the study.

In short, the results revealed that on average, people inflated the revenue obtained to a lesser extent when they used a foreign language, that is to say, in the context of a foreign language people tend to lie less than when they are in a native language context.

The authors explain this by saying: “Dishonest behaviour is associated with an automatic tendency that has a fast and intuitive emotional system. This tendency disappears when we use a foreign language, being less intuitive and automatic, and at the same time more analytical, which might reduce the temptation to lie”.

Costa adds, “the findings of our study are particularly relevant when we consider that many people have to make decisions that affect us in a context of a foreign language, usually English, such as the MEPs in Brussels, for example”.

Reference work:

Yoella Bereby-Meyer, Sayuri Hayakawa, Shaul Shalvi, Joanna D. Corey, Albert Costa, Boaz Keysar (2018), “Honesty Speaks a Second Language”, Topics in Cognitive Science, 1 july, https://doi.org/10.1111/tops.12360.

 

 

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