Does the language we speak determine how healthy and rich we will be? New research by Keith Chen of Yale Business School suggests so. The structure of languages affects our judgments and decisions about the future and this might have dramatic long-term consequences.
There has been a lot of research into how we deal with the future. For example, the famous marshmallow studies of Walter Mischel and colleagues showed that being able to resist temptation is predictive of future success. Four-year-old kids were given a marshmallow and were told that if they do not eat that marshmallow and wait for the experimenter to come back, they will get two marshmallows instead of one. Follow-up studies showed that the kids who were able to wait for the bigger future reward became more successful young adults.
Resisting our impulses for immediate pleasure is often the only way to attain the outcomes that are important to us. We want to keep a slim figure but we also want that last slice of pizza. We want a comfortable retirement, but we also want to drive that dazzling car, go on that dream vacation, or get those gorgeous shoes. Some people are better at delaying gratification than others. Those people have a better chance of accumulating wealth and keeping a healthy life style. They are less likely to be impulse buyers or smokers, or to engage in unsafe sex.
Chen’s recent findings suggest that an unlikely factor, language, strongly affects our future-oriented behavior. Some languages strongly distinguish the present and the future. Other languages only weakly distinguish the present and the future. Chen’s recent research suggests that people who speak languages that weakly distinguish the present and the future are better prepared for the future. They accumulate more wealth and they are better able to maintain their health. The way these people conceptualize the future is similar to the way they conceptualize the present. As a result, the future does not feel very distant and it is easier for them to act in accordance with their future interests.
Different languages have different ways of talking about the future. Some languages, such as English, Korean, and Russian, require their speakers to refer to the future explicitly. Every time English-speakers talk about the future, they have to use future markers such as “will” or “going to.” In other languages, such as Mandarin, Japanese, and German, future markers are not obligatory. The future is often talked about similar to the way present is talked about and the meaning is understood from the context. A Mandarin speaker who is going to go to a seminar might say “Wo qu ting jiangzuo,” which translates to “I go listen seminar.” Languages such as English constantly remind their speakers that future events are distant. For speakers of languages such as Mandarin future feels closer. As a consequence, resisting immediate impulses and investing for the future is easier for Mandarin speakers.
Chen analyzed individual-level data from 76 developed and developing countries. This data includes people’s economic decisions, such as whether they saved any money last year, the languages they speak at home, demographics, and cultural factors such as “saving is an important cultural value for me.” He also analyzed individual-level data on people’s retirement assets, smoking and exercising habits, and general health in older age. Lastly, he analyzed national-level data that includes national savings rates, country GDP and GDP growth rates, country demographics, and proportions of people speaking different languages.
People’s savings rates are affected by various factors such as their income, education level, age, religious affiliation, their countries’ legal systems, and their cultural values. After those factors were accounted for, the effect of language on people’s savings rates turned out to be big. Speaking a language that has obligatory future markers, such as English, makes people 30 percent less likely to save money for the future. This effect is as large as the effect of unemployment. Being unemployed decreases the likelihood of saving by about 30 percent as well.
Similar analyses showed that speaking a language that does not have obligatory future markers, such as Mandarin, makes people accumulate more retirement assets, smoke less, exercise more, and generally be healthier in older age. Countries’ national savings rates are also affected by language. Having a larger proportion of people speaking languages that does not have obligatory future markers makes national savings rates higher.
This is an unconventional way of explaining people’s consumption-saving decisions and health-related behavior. More conventional factors include dispositional, situational, motivational, and cultural factors. The marshmallow studies focus on dispositional factors—being able to delay gratification is an innate ability. Other research has looked at situational factors. For example, researchers have shown that simply rearranging the placement of food and beverages in a cafeteria can improve sales of healthy items. Other research focused on motivational factors. People often need to curb their current desire to consume in order to reach their future goal of getting out of debt. Researchers have shown that closing smaller debt accounts first gives a sense of accomplishment early on, boosts motivation, and increases the likelihood of completely getting rid of debt. The motivational effect is beneficial even if closing off smaller debt accounts does not make economic sense, for instance when the bigger debt accounts have higher interest rates attached to them. Other research has investigated cultural factors. It has been argued that Americans spend more than they need to because they want to emulate the lifestyles and spending patterns of people who are much richer than themselves. Chen’s findings suggest that maybe we should focus more on how we talk about the future in order to improve our intertemporal decision making.
These results also provide evidence for the language-cognition link, which has stirred some controversy among researchers. Early 20th century thinkers such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Ludwig Wittgenstein were among the first who argued that language can impact the way people think and act. More recently Steven Pinker argued that we think in a universal grammar and languages do not significantly shape our thinking. The issue is still hotly debated.
At a more practical level, researchers have been looking for ways to help people act in accordance with their long-term interests. Recent findings suggest that making the future feel closer to the present might improve future-oriented behavior. For instance, researchers recently presented people with renderings of their future selves made using age-progression algorithms that forecast how physical appearances would change over time. One group of participants saw a digital representation of their current selves in a virtual mirror, and the other group saw an age-morphed version of their future selves. Those participants who saw the age-morphed version of their future selves allocated more money toward a hypothetical savings account. The intervention brought people’s future to the present and as a result they saved more for the future.
Chen’s research shows that language structures our future-related thoughts. Language has been used before to alter time perception with surprising effects. Ellen Langer and colleagues famously improved older people’s physical health by simple interventions including asking them to talk about the events of twenty years ago as if it they were happening now. Talking about the past as if it were the present changed people’s mindsets and their mindsets affected their physical states. Chen’s research points at the possibility that the way we talk about the future can shape our mindsets. Language can move the future back and forth in our mental space and this might have dramatic influences on our judgments and decisions.