Languages differ widely in the ways they partition time. In this paper I test the hypothesis that languages which grammatically distinguish between present and future events (what linguists call strong-FTR languages) lead their speakers to take fewer future-oriented actions.
First, I show how this prediction arises naturally when well-documented effects of language on cognition are merged with models of decision making over time. Then, I show that consistent with this hypothesis, speakers of strong-FTR languages save less, hold less retirement wealth, smoke more, are more likely to be obese, and suffer worse longrun health.
This is true in every major region of the world and holds even when comparing only demographically similar individuals born and living in the same country. While not conclusive, the evidence does not seem to support the most obvious forms of common causation. Implications of these findings for theories of intertemporal choice are discussed.
Tom Pepinsky of Indolaysia (and Cornell) has a very nice discussion of the paper:
like many readers, I suspect, I have a tough time buying this. But we’re scientists here, so we go with the evidence rather than our intuitions or gut, which both tell me to run screaming from this finding. I want to comment on four things: two theoretical issues, an empirical question, and a methodological issue.
(I also highly recommend that you read my former professor Julie Sedivy and her comments on it.)
His comments are worth reading in full, as is the blog in general.
Perhaps from now on I should only speak in the past tense.
h/t Stathis Kalyvas