Boaz Keysar (Psychology) sheds new light on the role of language in the natural impulse to lie

by Sarah Fister Gale, UChicago News

People are more honest when using a foreign tongue, study finds while some people may be instantly suspicious when they encounter someone who speaks with a foreign accent, new research co-led by a University of Chicago professor suggests they are probably more credible than the average native speaker.

Earlier this year, Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology in the Social Sciences division and Yoella Bereby-Meyer, professor in the department of psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel published with their co-authors a paper entitled “Honesty Speaks a Second Language” that sheds new light on the role language plays in the natural impulse to lie.

“It builds on research showing that 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 said.

Roll of the dice

In the research, experimenters invited participants in four countries to play a game in which they rolled a die three times then reported the first number they rolled. Participants were paid according to the numbers they reported, and because the outcome was private they could cheat to inflate their profit without risk of repercussions.

The researchers used native speakers of English, Spanish, Hebrew and Korean. Working with groups in Spain, the United States, Israel and the Netherlands, they randomly assigned participants to perform the game in their native language, or in a foreign language. 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.”

The results, which were published by the journal Topics in Cognitive Science, proved surprising. Participants who used a foreign language were less likely to cheat than those using their native language, Keysar reported. 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 native language. “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 who was in charge of the UChicago part of the project as Keysar’s senior graduate student.

Keysar and Bereby-Meyer argue that the findings challenge theories of ethical behavior 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.

Check your bias

This research 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. He believes this research has important implications particularly in global businesses where 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 shows 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 language affects trust. They note that this paper was an international venture. The work was done in collaboration with Shaul Shalvi from the University of Amsterdam, Albert Costa and Joanna Corey from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, and Sayuri Hayakawa from the University of Chicago.

Read the article: Gale, S. F. (2018, August 14) Boaz Keysar (Psychology) sheds new light on the role of language in the natural impulse to lie. UChicago News. Retrieved from 

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