Does Talking About The Future Make It Less Likely?

A manuscript has been floating around the interweb which describes an experimental test of the hypothesis that languages which grammatically distinguish between present and future events (what linguists call strong future-tense reference languages) lead their speakers to take fewer future-oriented actions. 


The manuscript is entitled, The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets (pdf), and it compares languages that have different future-time reference (FTR) syntax. A strong-FTR language is one that has separate and obligatory “future” forms of verbs, while a weak-FTR language has a tendency to rarely distinguish present and future time.


Examples of weak-FTR languages include Japanese, German, Finnish, Mandarin, Swedish, Icelandic, Estonian, while strong-FTR languages include English, French, Spanish, Tamil, Italian, Hungarian, Hebrew, Polish, and Russian.


The implications of the paper suggest that speaking in a grammatically distinct way about the future leads speakers to take fewer future-focused actions by 1) discounting the value of future rewards and/or 2) having more diffuse beliefs about the timing of future events.The author compares individuals who are identical on numerous demographic levels as well as those who were born and raised in the same country. The future-focused behaviors profiled include an individual’s propensity to save, long-run effects on retirement wealth, and aggregate national savings rates. The findings were also extended to health behaviors ranging from smoking, exercise, and measures of long-run health. 


The mechanism that seems to be working here is even more compelling. Strong-FTR languages may lead to more finely partitioned distinctions and attention to timing which, in turn, result in greater precision of beliefs. The thinking goes that if people have more precise beliefs about the timing of future payoffs, they may engage in risk-seeking behavior to compensate for the uncertainty that comes from variability in the timing of a reward.


Plainly stated, strong-FTR speakers may have strongly-held beliefs about when they expect something to happen. However, things don’t always happen the way they expect them to. Consequently, they manage the inherent uncertainty by taking risks that may speed their desired outcome–or not.


There’s still a great deal to unpack from this work, and it remains to seen whether the work will endure as a valid result.  However, like any good hypothesis it creates interesting questions, and it also suggests meaningful tactics for more effectively translating foresight into insight and actionable behavior.



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