Does Language Influence Our Propensity to Save?

Does my Chinese language subconsciously influence me to save more, avoid smoking, exercise more, and eat more healthily?

That seems to be the conclusion of economist Keith Chen of the Yale School of Management, in his recently published paper (and described in his much more viewer-friendly TED Talk).

Prof. Chen’s argument essentially runs as follows: certain languages, such as English and  Greek, oblige speakers to separate out present and future tense (“I will go to the store tomorrow”), while other languages, such as Chinese and German, prevent speakers from doing so (“我明天去商店”, or, “I go to the store tomorrow”). Could this linguistic separation of present and future in certain languages lead speakers of that language to discount the future, thus reducing their propensity to save and prepare for the future? Since this is certainly not a question that can be answered using a randomized controlled trial, Prof. Chen goes the big data route; pulling data from the largest data sets in the world and running regressions to parse out the effects of numerous possible confounding variables, so that he can compare the savings behavior of people born in the same country, living in the same country, of the same sex, age, income level, educational achievement, family structure, religion, etc. and differing only in the language they speak. What he found was a surprisingly rigorous correlation despite controlling for all of these other factors: “Futureless” language speakers are 30% more likely to report having saved in any given year, 20-24% less likely to smoke, 13-17% less likely to be obese by retirement, and 21% more likely to report having used a condom in their last sexual encounter.

Two Linguists Offer Their Criticisms

I listened to a recording of this TED talk while practicing my (apparently linguistically-driven) morning run yesterday, and slowly shifted from skepticism to mind-blown acceptance as Prof. Chen covered his statistical bases. But it’s easy to become a believer when you’re neither a professional linguist or economist. Upon arriving home, I did a quick search and sure enough, uncovered well-written criticisms from two linguistics professors:

Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania highlights the dangers of running statistics on factors that may very well not be completely independent. He uses graphical depictions to show that as soon as you introduce the assumption that certain factors are correlated in their geographic diffusion (e.g. language and culture), it becomes quite easy to find highly statistically significant correlations between non-causally related phenomenon.

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.” -Economist Ronald Coase

Geoffrey K. Pullum of the University of Edinburgh has a slightly more piquant response (including taking a jab at Prof. Chen for being a “non-linguist”), challenging Prof. Chen’s categorization of languages into strong and weak “future time reference” languages. This underlied some of my initial skepticism as well (after all, I can easily say, “我明天会去商店”, or “I will go to the store tomorrow”). Perhaps most alarmingly, Osten Dahl–the same scholar whose work Prof. Chen relies upon to categorize his languages–shows up in the comments section to emphasize that he never created hard categorizations in the first place.

These posts touched off a series of additional conversations, which you can find outlined here. Not being an expert in either field, I’ll leave it to you if you want to continue down the rabbit hole of this very interesting debate. However, I did want to highlight one remark from Prof. Chen that I think we can all learn from.

Stepping Out of the Echo Chamber

Earlier in the week, I had listened to a TED Talk (maybe I’ve overdosing a bit here) by Margaret Heffernan, who recounted the story of Alice Stewart. Alice Stewart was an English physician and epidemiologist who in 1956 published a paper showing for the first time that children of women who received X-rays while pregnant were significantly more likely to die from childhood cancer. What’s most striking about this story is the fact that Alice had to fight entrenched interests for 25 years before the British and American medical authorities changed their practices, and how her working relationship with a statistician named George Kneale helped her persevere through the fight. As Ms. Heffernan explains, George saw it as his job to prove Dr. Stewart wrong. He crunched the numbers in different ways, explored possible confounding factors, and tried everything within his statistical power to poke holes in her conclusion.

“Because it was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong, that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.” -Margaret Heffernan

This brings me to a statement that Prof. Chen included in his response to Profs. Liberman and Pullum that jumped out at me:

“…all analyses I conduct are on publicly available data, and I’d love to talk more with readers interested in replicating, extending, or testing these results in ways I haven’t thought of.”

Too often we enclose ourselves in an echo chamber of like-minded thinkers, looking for the next killer argument to throw at “the other side”. Regardless of whether Prof. Chen’s hypothesis turns out to be valid or not, his openness to engaging in constructive conflict is something I think we should all strive to emulate.

34 thoughts on “Does Language Influence Our Propensity to Save?

  1. Is language, though, really culture? One commentator made an interesting point: those Americans who experienced the Great Depression were/are very thrifty. So any comment about Americans as a group being profligate must have a qualifier. Experience, not culture/language, is the great teacher, imho.

  2. So fascinating!! And I really believe it. I studied cross-cultural communication and your blog post just made me feel like I sat through a hugely informative class in less than five minutes. Thanks for reminding me why I love to study culture!

  3. Reblogged this on The Rev Onyx and commented:
    Interesting article involving linguistics, statistics and economics…

  4. “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” attributed to Mark Twain”

  5. Wow. You create one hell of an article.

  6. very interesting article, thanks for sharing :)

  7. I’m multilingual (speak English, Spanish, French and Portuguese, studied Russian, Japanese and Chinese). So I’ve been exposed to a lot of cultures and a lot of statistics! I agree that the reason for saving probably lies with the culture. Look at people who grew up during the Great Depression… many are incredibly thrifty or even hoarders, in spite of no longer being poor. As for different languages having or not having a future tense, that’s really semantics, isn’t it? Just because “I go to store” sounds futureless to you, doesn’t make it futureless. After all, the person probably said “Tomorrow, I go to store”. Otherwise no one would know what they meant and all hell would break loose. :D

  8. Sticking to just the linguistics…I definitely think that our vocabulary influences our behavior, simply because it defines what we see as normal and acceptable. It gives categories to our life, and if something doesn’t fit into one of these categories we question it. One of my favorite linguistic nuances is that in Latin there is no word for “Yes” or “No”. You have to say “it is not” or “it is” (or “I will” and “I will not, etc.). There are a lot of interesting cases in medicine too. For example cultures that do not have a word for “wheezing” have few diagnosed cases of asthma, simply because all there is no appropriate word for expressing the symptoms. Interesting!

  9. Interesting. I speak several languages and I have to agree that you think and feel differently in each language. Switching from English to Russian, for instance, to speak with my parents, I definitely feel a “shift” of perception and attitude that happens in my brain. I think language in many ways shapes the culture and the people.

  10. That was interesting, I’ve also read a similar piece before, on Cracked.com of all places.
    What that article and this has done, is affect the way I talk, write and most importantly think.

  11. Wow this is really interesting! Definitely something to think about, as well as inspire more awareness about how we speak and the language/words we use.

  12. “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.” -Economist Ronald Coase
    Haha, so funny! Love this quote.
    What you discussed about here is very interesting. I myself found it impossible to express in English many thoughts formed in my mind in Chinese, while speaking English actually helps me to think more logically and precisely. Not very relevant to your article but this is what I thought. Thank you for the good work!

  13. a very interesting observation , well cone!

  14. Psycholinguistics can be fascinating and at least raise interesting questions even if they don’t turn out to be true. I’ve often wondered whether England national football team are so bad at penalties because the word has a negative association – Germans have a much more practical name ‘Elf Meter’ (11 meters) and are historically much more successful in shootouts.

    Nice post!

  15. Bias affects statistics, just as it does most endeavors.

  16. Just for the record, German does not prevent speakers from separating present and future tenses. While it is more common to say Ich gehe morgen zur Arbeit (literally, I go to work tomorrow, i.e present tense), it is possible to say Ich werde morgen zur Arbeit gehen (literally, I will go to work tomorrow, i.e. future tense).

  17. Very interesting. AS a hypnotherapist, it is quite interesting to see how people in the west and the east encode time in their minds. As you go to the East, people lose track of time. There is no such thing as “5am sharp”. There is just “let’s meet in the afternoon” and God knows what time that is. So, some further study might bring some interesting ideas. Thanks.

  18. You wrote an enthralling, even-handed piece here that should very much be considered part of the debate. A wonderful read; really fascinating.

  19. always speak truth

  20. Just curious, which of these is a native Mandarin speaker more likely to say? 我明天去商店 or 我明天会去商店?

    As a native English speaker my inclination is to throw the 会 in there, but I’m always wary of adding unnecessary words in my conversation.

  21. I found this under freshly pressed? Why do I not see the stamp on your blog yet. I like how you have ended this article with the quote from Prof. Chen as well as encouraging readers to pause and think about constructive conflict.

  22. Strange. I think Chen is a numbers geek.

  23. -Too often we enclose ourselves in an echo chamber of like-minded thinkers, looking for the next killer argument to throw at “the other side”-a remarkable sentence..

  24. Congratulations for the text. It is very interesting!

  25. I don’t think language helps you save money or not smoke. Most people agree that’s more a result of upbringing and culture. But if linguistics does have something to do with it, they should tell the Chinese students at my school about it, because half of them smoke!

  26. It’s always great to read about someone not just believing a catchy summary, but instead going back to the source material to see what it actually said. You might be interested in my blog post on Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory – like the researchers you cite, the author of the studies that Gladwell referenced has said that his results did not show what Gladwell claims they did. http://wp.me/p2ixlh-al
    Thanks for a very interesting post!

  27. I recently watched this video! As a speaker of five languages, I feel that there are endless connections between the language you are speaking and the way you think. When I change from one language to another, my mannerisms also change. Essentially, I’m speaking that culture. An interesting case that would support Chen’s hypothesis is the difference between the Chinese and Korean saving culture. I’ve always felt that the Chinese save more than Koreans, and it turns out that Korean does have a future tense. Fascinating.

  28. In theory, I agree with your point about stepping out of the “echo chamber” of our own side. In practice, however, it gets tougher to do so–not only because of professional pressures, but also because we just don’t have the infinite amount of time that it would take to engage with everyone who might wish to argue with us.

  29. Extremely well written post, it’s a really interesting idea from Chan, but I’d have to agree Liberman – the statistics could be completely incidental. Thanks for providing so many external citations, that’s my day gone!

  30. Ted talks are like water soluble vitamins, you can not overdose. You wrote a very interesting article. I look forward to checking both of those speakers out.

  31. I think statistics are good to a point. To me it depends on the setting the statistics were collected, who was in the pool and who conducted the statistic tests for me to give it creditability. What do you think?

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