People are more honest when using a foreign tongue, research finds

August 17, 2018, University of Chicago
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

New UChicago-led research suggests that someone who speaks in a foreign language is probably more credible than the average native speaker.

Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and Yoella Bereby-Meyer, professor in psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, co-authored a recent paper in Topics in Cognitive Science that sheds new light on the role language plays in the natural impulse to lie.

In the research, native speakers of English, Spanish, Hebrew and Korean in four countries were invited to play a dice game in which they were paid according to the numbers they reported. Participants who used a were less likely to cheat than those using their native language, researchers found.

"When individuals have a chance to profit from dishonesty with no risk of being caught, their instinctive tendency is to cheat, while they refrain from cheating when they have time to deliberate," Bereby-Meyer said. Such opportunities often occur in everyday situations, such as lying about a child's age to get a cheaper ticket price, or not speaking up when you receive too much change. "There is a natural temptation to lie in these situations," she added.

Roll of the dice

Working with groups in Spain, the United States, Israel and the Netherlands, researchers randomly assigned participants to perform the game in their native language or in a foreign language. They were paid according to the numbers they reported, and because the outcome was private, participants could cheat to inflate their profit without risk of repercussions.

Even though the game itself only involves reading numbers on a dice, all of the interaction was in the designated language and participants clicked on 'number words' on the screen, Bereby-Meyer said. "The die paradigm was a natural way to examine language's effect on honesty."

Even though the participants' responses were private, the higher proportion of 5s or 6s selected by native language users showed that participants had a greater tendency to inflate their numbers when working in their .

"Even though there wasn't much language involved, just being in a foreign language mindset made them more likely to resist temptation," said Sayuri Hayakawa, a UChicago graduate student who was in charge of the UChicago part of the project.

Check your bias

Keysar and Bereby-Meyer argue that the findings challenge theories of to account for the role of the language in shaping ethical behavior. They believe the outcome is due to the fact that using a foreign language is less intuitive, so the automatic response systems that might give rise to cheating may be disengaged. "There is less temptation, so it becomes easier to refrain from impulsive behavior," Bereby-Meyer said.

The study also provides a compelling narrative about inherent biases toward foreigners. "Studies have shown people with accents are perceived as less credible because they can be more difficult to understand," Keysar said. These results suggest the opposite may be true.

Keysar believes this research has important implications, particularly in global business, in which companies work with foreign suppliers and customers on a daily basis. Even though a person's gut instinct may be to trust these people less, the data show that if they are using a foreign language, they might be more honest.

Bereby-Meyer and Keysar plan to continue their work together in a new study exploring how affects trust.

Explore further: Lying in a foreign language is easier

More information: Yoella Bereby-Meyer et al. Honesty Speaks a Second Language, Topics in Cognitive Science (2018). DOI: 10.1111/tops.12360

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2 comments

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Anonym518498
1 / 5 (2) Aug 17, 2018
Taxpayer dollars for this junk?
julianpenrod
not rated yet Aug 17, 2018
Among other things, the attitude of the "researchers" toward people in general can say a lot. They declare baldly that everyone cheats if they can get away with it.
How many people will necessarily redo the "experiment" the "researchers" describe? They could say they got a the results they claim randomly if other "researchers" got different results. Would many other "researchers" likely declare them to be lying if they said they got their results by random error? By their declaration, then, the "researchers" cannot be said not necessarily themselves to be abiding by what they claim is universal, lying for personal profit!
Note, people may be more truthful in a different language because, often if not usually, supporting a lie may require some work and they don't trust themselves to be competent enough to stick with a lie in another language.

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