Speaking of the future: Keith Chen at TEDGlobal 2012

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Keith Chen

Keith Chen is a Yale economist who made a stir earlier this year with an intriguing working paper relating economics and language — a paper that is yet unpublished, Bruno is careful to note onstage. Chen is onstage at TED to hash over the question, which is sparking ongoing debate and refinement (read a key blog post and Chen’s response); he’s working with the linguistics community at Yale to refine the theory. As he says: “This is a fanciful theory; as a professor I am paid to have fanciful theories. But how do you test it?”

He starts by making an intriguing point about languages: Different languages allow, even require, different levels of detail. As a sample, Chen offers something that intrigued him as a kid growing up speaking both English and Mandarin Chinese. In English, he could say, “I had dinner with my uncle.” But in Mandarin Chinese, he’s unable to say something as simple as “my uncle.” “The language requires you to specify whether this was an uncle on my mother’s or father’s side, by marriage or by birth, whether he was older or younger than my father.”

Or he notes, if it’s raining, “If I’m speaking in English, I have to speak grammatically differently if I’m talking about past rain, current rain or future rain.” Meanwhile, a Chinese speaker can say something that sounds very strange to an English speaker’s ear: “It rained yesterday”; “It rained now”; “It rained tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, here’s a question that puzzles him as an economist: Why do people in different countries save in such radically different amounts? When he shows a graph of savings rate as % of GDP 1985-2010, the difference across countries is surprisingly large. Luxemburg, at the top, saves more than 40% of annual production per year, while Greece saves just about 10%, and the US and UK each clock in at 15%.

So he wondered: Could your country, and specifically your language, have something to do with how you save? Could how you speak about time and the future affect your propensity to behave across time, to plan for your future?

Keith Chen

Using a rough distinction between “futured” and “futureless” languages (this rough distinction is the bit that Chen is working with his linguistics colleagues to refine), Chen compared savings data from nearly identical households whose key difference was language. Imagine two families who live across the street from one another with identical attributes — same geographic area, income level, number of children — but they speak a different language. Would their saving rate also be different in a way that correlates?

Chen digresses into a fascinating sidebar on research methods, and in particular on European census techniques, which are legendarily intense (not just How much money do you make? but How long is the central hallway in your home? What’s your lung capacity?) but produce rich data. Fun fact: In European census data, there’s 6 different ways to be married.

What Chen found was a significant correlation: an average difference of 5% in savings rate depending on whether you speak futured or futureless language. And no matter how far he drills down within countries, he says, “I can’t get this model to break.” It’s an intriguing correlation that, he believes, has less than a 1-in-1,000 chance of happening at random.

How is it that languages are different in a way that could affect how we save for the future? Chen suggests an intriguing theory: that, in a sense, language can force us to pay attention to different aspects of the environment around us.

He takes the correlation further. Beyond savings rates, what other behaviors might does this financial behavior — saving more or less — correlate to other social factors? His surprising research correlates savings rates to health data, smoking, being obese, even using condoms. Which makes sense, he suggests: “Smoking is current pleasure traded for future pain. Savings is current pain traded for future pleasure.”

The research is intriguing, as Chen and his colleagues hunt for subconscious triggers that drive future-proof behavior. The ultimate goal: “We want to provide people tools so that they can consciously become better savers.”

Photos: James Duncan Davidson