SAGE Journals

Language changes medical judgments and beliefs

Posted on 2021-06-12 - 12:07
Aims and objectives:

How health risks are communicated can have a substantial impact on medical judgments and choice. Here, we examine whether the language used to process health-related information systematically changes bilinguals’ perceptions and preferences.


Chinese-English bilinguals were presented with 10 medical scenarios in either their native language (Mandarin Chinese; n = 76) or a second language (American English; n = 84) and made judgments regarding their familiarity with the medical conditions and the perceived severity of the possible symptoms (incurability, emotional distress, physical pain, social harm). Participants then rated their agreement with statements pertaining to beliefs about medical decision-making (trust in the good intentions of doctors, acceptability of challenging doctors, importance of involving family, preference for standard treatments, preference for experimental treatments).

Data and analysis:

Linear mixed-effects models were constructed for judgments of medical conditions and for beliefs regarding medical decision-making.

Findings and conclusions:

Medical conditions were perceived to be easier to cure, less physically painful, and less emotionally distressing when processed in the second language, English. Using English also increased endorsement of beliefs (such as challenging doctors’ opinions and accepting experimental treatments) that were more consistent with individualistic than with collectivistic norms. We propose that the activation of emotions and values is linked to language, with consequences for how individuals make decisions that impact their health and well-being.


The present study is among the first to systematically examine the interactive psychological impact of language context and experience on judgments and beliefs in an applied medical domain.


With millions of practitioners and patients worldwide making medical decisions in a combination of native and non-native languages, the present findings highlight the need to account for language, including language use, context, and experience, in order to optimize health-related communication and judgments.


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