Learning English and Mandarin as a child, Keith Chen came to understand a fundamental difference: English forced him to use future tenses (“I will eat tomorrow”), while Mandarin let him opt out (“I eat tomorrow”). Now a behavioral economist at Yale, Chen’s research reveals that a language’s future orientation has dramatic economic effects. He found that speakers of languages like Mandarin take more future-oriented actions: they’re more likely to save and accumulate wealth, less likely to smoke and suffer from obesity, and better at telling jokes.
Makeshift: How do languages tackle future events differently?
KC: In many languages, there’s no grammatical distinction between the future and the present. These are called weak-FTR (future time reference) languages. Other languages have very rich distinctions, or strong FTR. For example, in many African languages, there’s a way you talk about something that’s happening right now, something that’s not happening right now but will happen immediately, and that’s not going to happen immediately but before dawn tomorrow morning. Some languages have up to seven different levels. It forces people to speak and think differently about the future.
Why would weak-FTR languages promote future-oriented actions?
Psychologically, it’s similar to why jokes are always told in the present tense: it makes the past feel more immediate. A joke is told like, “A man walks into a bar and says to the bartender,” never, “A man walked into a bar.” Humor depends on surprise and immediacy; it doesn’t work when told in the past tense. In the same way, languages that force speakers to talk about the future as if it were the present can lead them to act as if the future were closer, which can have positive effects on choices like how much to save. I found that weak-FTR speakers were 31 percent more likely to have saved in a year and accumulated 39 percent more wealth by retirement.
So many other factors affect our decisions. How did you account for them?
The problem is comparing across countries; a lot of things are different. There are nine countries with a lot of richness in their future-time structure between languages within the country: Belgium, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Estonia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Malaysia, Singapore, and Switzerland. I obtained rich family-level data for each and matched pairs of families that are identical on a bunch of dimensions: marital structure, income, educational achievement, and age for the head of household. When you have people attending the same church, in the same country, and going to the same schools, the research comes close to netting out effects of culture.
What inspired your research?
Lera Boroditsky did amazing work on how different languages affect color perception. She found that different languages chop up the color spectrum into different chunks. Where does red stop and orange begin? You see the natural metaphor here. Color is a continuous thing that language cuts into different pieces. The same is true of time.
What should people take away?
I do this work to help researchers get a better grasp on what drives people’s decisions. I hope the research gets to a point where one can start designing tools to aid decision making. The ultimate goal is to increase people’s understanding of the subtle things that drive their own decisions and help make them better stewards of their own future.