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Depiction of various superstitions, including; a magpie, a black cat walking under a ladder and a smashed mirror
Brain, Race, ethnicity and culture, Cognition and perception

Thinking in a foreign language, we’re less prone to superstition

When we encounter a concept loaded with superstitious symbolism in our second tongue, we know what it means literally, but the emotional associations don’t come automatically.

21 November 2017

By Alex Fradera

Operating in our second language can have some intriguing psychological effects. We swear more freely and linger longer on embarrassing topics than normal. We're also less susceptible to cognitive biases. According to psychologist Constantinos Hadjichristidis at the University of Trento, this is because a second language discourages us from relying on intuitive thinking. In a new paper in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Hadjichristidis and his colleagues have shown another way that this manifests – when thinking in a foreign language, we're less prone to superstition.

In one experiment, 400 native German speakers with proficiency in English imagined themselves in various scenarios, described either in German or English text, about an important day, like the morning before an exam or the day of a job application deadline. Each scenario involved a break in the routine, which was either mundane (like discovering the kitchen sink being blocked or spotting an airplane in the sky), or had a superstitious connotation – negative, like a mirror breaking, or positive, such as spotting a falling star in the sky. Participants rated how positive or negative they would feel in these situations, responding in the same language as the text.

Reading and responding in English, rather than German, made no difference to participants' ratings of how they'd feel following a mundane event, but led to them describing less intense emotional reactions to the events with a superstitious connotation: they said they'd feel less negative about the bad luck events and less positive about the good luck events.

What's happening here? Intuition depends on easily accessible connections, such as the term "broken mirror" being repeatedly associated with dismay or discomfort. These connections tend to be built in earlier life, and invariably in our native tongue (the German participants in this research had only begun learning English from age 12, on average). When we encounter a concept loaded with superstitious symbolism in our second tongue, we know what it means literally, but the emotional associations don't come along automatically.

Left unchecked, our thinking is always influenced by our intuitions, which means even those who want to live as hard-nosed materialists may find magical thinking creeping in through the side gate. One way to combat this is to monitor the ideas that form and try to expel the unwanted influences. But this research suggests another approach: bar the gate so the influences don't enter in the first place. For now, this option is only available to bilinguals, but it opens a route for discovering other modes of thinking that are more intuition-free.