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

Related Stories

Lying in a foreign language is easier

July 20, 2018
It is not easy to tell when someone is lying. This is even more difficult when potential liars speak in a language other than their native tongue. Psychologists of the University of Würzburg investigated why that is so.

Research examines impact of foreign language on risk perception, moral judgment

November 21, 2016
Researchers are only beginning to understand how a foreign language affects decision-making, with early findings coming in areas such as moral judgment and risk assessment.

Describing certain foods in a foreign language reduces aversion

February 2, 2018
Restaurateurs apparently know what they're doing when they offer "escargot" on a menu rather than "snails." New research shows that people are more willing to eat foods that they find disgusting if those foods are presented ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

Using a foreign language changes moral decisions

April 28, 2014
Would you sacrifice one person to save five? Such moral choices could depend on whether you are using a foreign language or your native tongue. A new study from psychologists at the University of Chicago and Pompeu Fabra ...

Infants recognize foreign languages as a form of communication

January 24, 2018
Infants recognize that speech in a language not their own is used for communication, finds a new psychology study. The results, which appear in the journal Cognition, offer new insights into how language is processed at a ...

Recommended for you

Breast milk may be best for premature babies' brain development

September 21, 2018
Babies born before their due date show better brain development when fed breast milk rather than formula, a study has found.

The connection between alcoholism and depression

September 21, 2018
Alcoholism and depression often go hand-in-hand.

Even toddlers weigh risks, rewards when making choices

September 21, 2018
Every day, adults conduct cost-benefit analyses in some form for decisions large and small, economic and personal: Bring a lunch or go out? Buy or rent? Remain single or start a family? All are balances of risk and reward.

Early warning sign of psychosis detected

September 21, 2018
Brains of people at risk of psychosis exhibit a pattern that can help predict whether they will go on to develop full-fledged schizophrenia, a new Yale-led study shows. The findings could help doctors begin early intervention ...

White matter repair and traumatic brain injury

September 20, 2018
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a leading cause of death and disability in the U.S., contributing to about 30 percent of all injury deaths, according to the CDC. TBI causes damage to both white and gray matter in the brain, ...

'Gut sense' is hardwired, not hormonal

September 20, 2018
If you've ever felt nauseous before an important presentation, or foggy after a big meal, then you know the power of the gut-brain connection.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

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.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.