Does language shape behavior?
Here’s the idea: Languages differ in the devices they offer to speakers who want to talk about the future. For some, like Spanish and Greek, you have to tack on a verb ending that explicitly marks future time—so, in Spanish, you would say escribo for the present tense (I write or I’m writing) andescribiré for the future tense (I will write). But other languages like Mandarin don’t require their verbs to be escorted by grammatical markers that convey future time—time is usually obvious from something else in the context. In Mandarin, you would say the equivalent of I write tomorrow, using the same verb form for both present and future.
Chen’s finding is that if you divide up a large number of the world’s languages into those that require a grammatical marker for future time and those that don’t, you see an interesting correlation: speakers of languages that force grammatical marking of the future have amassed a smaller retirement nest egg, smoke more, exercise less, and are more likely to be obese. Why would this be? The claim is that a sharp grammatical division between the present and future encourages people to conceive of the future as somehow dramatically different from the present, making it easier to put off behaviors that benefit your future self rather than your present self.
Even if it were true, this seems like the kind of thing that’s easy to attribute way too much importance to. It’d be interesting to see research on language usage within one language and if it’s related to behavioral patterns.
Wouldn’t one think that a sharper present/future distinction would be associated with better planning for the future. This post argues that procrastination stems from a failure to appreciate the differences in circumstances between the present and the future.
You must be adept at thinking about thinking to defeat yourself at procrastination. You must realize there is the you who sits there now reading this, and there is a you sometime in the future who will be influenced by a different set of ideas and desires, a you in a different setting where an alternate palette of brain functions will be available for painting reality.
The now you may see the costs and rewards at stake when it comes time to choose studying for the test instead of going to the club, eating the salad instead of the cupcake, writing the article instead of playing the video game.
The trick is to accept the now you will not be the person facing those choices, it will be the future you – a person who can’t be trusted. Future-you will give in, and then you’ll go back to being now-you and feel weak and ashamed. Now-you must trick future-you into doing what is right for both parties.
This is why food plans like Nutrisystem work for many people. Now-you commits to spending a lot of money on a giant box of food which future-you will have to deal with. People who get this concept use programs like Freedom, which disables Internet access on a computer for up to eight hours, a tool allowing now-you to make it impossible for future-you to sabotage your work.
Doesn’t this sounds like it’s blaming blurry division between present and future. What am I missing?
- Keith Chen, Whorfian economist (languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu)
- Does the language you speak really affect how you see the future? (io9.com)
- Whorfian Economics (clubtroppo.com.au)
- Speaking English May Be Bad for Your Financial Health (motherjones.com)
- Thought experiments on language and thought (languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu)
- Is Your Language Making You Broke and Fat? (3quarksdaily.com)