The Debiasing Effect of Legalisms

This is a nice result:

“Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue? It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears when choices are presented in a foreign tongue. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native tongue, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language. Two additional experiments show that using a foreign language reduces loss aversion, increasing the acceptance of both hypothetical and real bets with positive expected value. We propose that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does.”

It made me wonder whether the law’s anachronistic use of latin helps lawyers, laypeople and judges by debiasing them. If so, I’d find the result especially ironic as I generally ask students to avoid latin on exams.  I’ve always explained that the law’s latin phrases obscure thought and are often wrongly employed.  Arguendo is a particular target of my irritation.  But if it turns out that forcing people to read latin in a jury instruction – scienter, or guardian ad litem – makes them better decisionmakers, it would imply that I’m actually removing an important tool in students’ exam-taking box!  The result would also be cool for various other reasons, including as a way to think about the project of judicial debiasing.

This is testable – I’m thinking I just found another summer project.  As a pretest, you could help by telling me if reading Opinio Juris makes you feel highly rational.

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1 Response

  1. Ryan Calo says:

    Fascinating! Call it “Synoptic Syntax,” after Cardozo’s great legal process concept of synoptic vision.