What language has to do with saving money

Keith Chen has proposed that the language we speak can affect our future-oriented behaviors. Some languages, like English, require that speakers grammatically mark future events, thus distinguishing them from present events. For example, we would have to say, “today it is raining,” and “tomorrow it will rain.” Other languages make the grammatical distinction between present and future either optional or nonexistent. In German, for example, the equivalent of our phrase “tomorrow it will rain” is “Morgen regnet es” (it rains tomorrow). Whether referring to rain in the moment or in the future, Germans need not modify the tense of the verb. Chen describes languages like English as strong-FTR (future-time reference), and languages like German as weak-FTR.

Undoubtedly, languages vary in many ways on how they talk about the future – the distinction strong- versus weak-FTR might be an oversimplification in a way, but distinguishing the two types based on whether grammatically marking the future is necessary makes the binary split possible. After just reading about the two different language types, my intuition was that the concept of the future would be more salient for speakers of languages like English who are forced by their language to mark it grammatically. In this case, we might expect speakers of these languages to demonstrate more future-oriented behaviors. This seems to be the trend in general with language on thought effects – when speakers of a language must attend to a feature of the world to encode it in their language, their behavior often reflects that heightened attention.

However, this isn’t what Chen found. He found that speakers of weak-FTR languages, those whose languages don’t require that they grammatically distinguish the present from the future,  save more, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese. In other words, it sounds like treating the present and future the same grammatically is connected to better forward-looking behaviors. He found this effect at the level of individual households and on the more macro level of countries’ saving rates as a whole. He was even able to identify 7 countries in which a large population speaks a weak-FTR language and another large portion speaks a strong-FTR language. When comparing families who spoke each type of language (and controlling for potentially every variable possible), he found that those families who spoke the weak-FTR language showed significantly more future-oriented behaviors than those who spoke strong-FTR behaviors.

Image; http://www.chicagonow.com/own-your-legacy/2013/06/saving-dollars-begins-with-saving-pennies-saving-money-at-home/
Image; http://www.chicagonow.com/own-your-legacy/2013/06/saving-dollars-begins-with-saving-pennies-saving-money-at-home/

The fact that the reverse finding (strong-FTR speakers exhibit more future-oriented behaviors) could have easily been explained (as a result of heightened attention to the future) is only a little troubling to me. The thoroughness of Chen’s study, evident in the number of languages, survey measures, and controlled variables adds a lot to its credibility. Because grammatical structures like future marking take many generations to evolve, it’s unlikely that cultures who focus more on saving would have adapted their language to reflect that value. Plus, if they had done that, it would be more likely for them to have added a grammatical distinction between the present and future, as a reflection of the importance they attribute to the future.

But as I was talking it over with a friend, I came up with another thought. Because many features of language do reflect cultural values, is it possible that cultures that strive to be economical, or in other words, to waste nothing, do so both in their language and  in their economic practices? For example, Mandarin is a weak-FTR language. I know it also does not contain articles and has a much more straightforward counting system than English does. To me, these features could all be described as “economical.” Might such language features correlate with savings? Maybe it could even account for why speakers of those languages are less obese and smoke less – excess food and cigarettes are seen as just that – excesses that detract from economical practices. I’m skeptical that this could be an explaining factor also because Chen found that almost no other language features could predict the future-oriented effects as well as FTR, but I suppose it’s possible that FTR is one of the most consistent and reliable measures of whether a language tends to be economical.

If this finding is reflective of a true cognitive difference resulting from a grammatical feature of language, it’s a pretty important one. Just in case, I think I stop using the future tense.

What the future tense has to do with saving money

Upon reading the title of an Atlantic article, “Can your language influence your spending, eating, and smoking habits?” I was immediately skeptical. I love a Whorfian argument just as much as the next guy (actually, I probably love it much more), but it’s also an easy topic to get carried away with and blown out of proportion.  The article reports on a recent paper by Keith Chen in which he looked at languages’ different ways of differentiating the present from the future (or not), and the behaviors that those differences correlated with.

He found that speakers of “futured” languages, like English, in which the present and future are marked grammatically (we say things like, “it IS cold,” vs. “it WILL BE cold”) seem overall to conceptualize the future and present as more different from each other than speakers of languages in which the verb’s grammatical structure is the same for both the present and the future. He claimed that this difference in conceptualization is evident in behaviors including saving money as well as healthy habits, like eating and smoking, as the title suggests. He even controlled for the country that people lived in, since the claim could easily be made that people of a similar culture tend to behave similarly on many of these measures. He found that in countries where different languages are spoken, the language a person speaks is a stronger predictor of his present vs. future behaviors than the country in which he lives (and the culture of that country).

This short video summarizes the Whorfian claim as well as Chen’s specific findings in a really comprehensive manner for those who aren’t as obsessed with linguistic relativity as I am:

If this is true, then shouldn’t speakers of languages who grammatically treat the past and present as the same also distinguish less between the two? Maybe they’re more likely to make decisions based on past experiences, or maybe they hold more grudges? I anticipate one problem with testing this, though, which is that the languages who don’t differentiate between present and future tenses are probably overwhelmingly the same ones that don’t differentiate between past and present? For example, if a person speaks a language in which all tenses are grammatically the same (like Mandarin), Chen’s paper suggests that he might save more money based on his feeling that the present and future are indistinguishable in some senses. But what if this behavior is, in fact, based on a sense that the past and present are also indistinguishable, and since recalling how hard he worked for that money in the past highly influences him not to spend it now? Time is a messy concept, but Chen’s findings seem so cut-and-dry that it definitely deserves more attention.

Maybe if this guy didn't speak a future language, he wouldn't be having this issue... Image: http://thelaymansanswerstoeverything.com/2008/06/20/diary-of-a-layman-10-spring-2008-past-present-and-future-selves-pt-ii/
Maybe if this guy didn’t speak a future language, he wouldn’t be having this issue…
Image: http://thelaymansanswerstoeverything.com/2008/06/20/diary-of-a-layman-10-spring-2008-past-present-and-future-selves-pt-ii/

And to think that some people think grammar is boring – I bet they don’t think saving money is boring, but the two may not be as disconnected as they at first appear…

A working definition of cog sci

With my college graduation just days away, it’s only natural that I’ve been doing quite a bit of introspecting: In what ways am I different from the 17-year old my parents dropped off at Vassar in 2009? How do my current beliefs and thoughts differ from those I had as I began my freshman year, and what aspects of my education have contributed to those developments? I think back to many of the classes I’ve taken over the four years: French, Latin, and Chinese, computer science, physiological psychology, the history of the English language, and anthropological linguistics come to mind. I feel that cumulatively, regardless of whether they counted towards the Cognitive Science major in the eyes of the Registrar, they have all contributed to my current understanding of the human mind.

In the fall, I’ll begin working on a PhD in cognitive science, so it seems just to expect myself to have a clear definition of the field. “It’s like psychology, right?” asks almost every curious relative, family friend, and dental hygienist I’ve encountered in the past. Others with more understanding of what cognitive science entails may see it as a lofty field, thinking about thinking, without practical applications. The conventional understanding of cognitive science, as articulated by Wikipedia, the hub of collective intelligence, is “the interdisciplinary scientific study of the mind and its processes.” While I certainly can’t disagree with this, such a pithy statement falls short for me.

The world is messy. I’ve always been tempted to impose order on it, applying logic to circumstances in which it may not belong, and I feel confident that I’m not alone in the propensity to reduce the world around me to causes and effects. However, causes and effects are meaningless in the absence of context, the world in which anything- and everything- occurs. Because this world is dynamic and constantly changing, explanatory reductions may be misguided; instead, context may be the only acceptable explanation for the perceptions and actions that we seek to understand. Cognitive science is, to me, the study of the mind- of any agent that perceives and acts in its world- that takes context as its starting point. In order to truly take context into account, the discipline necessarily draws from a number of fields, including psychology, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, computer science and artificial intelligence, and neuroscience. Each field is simply one piece of the larger puzzle: alone, it has awkward edges and indiscernible shapes, but the amalgamation reveals a whole image that’s greater than the sum of all its parts.

On the first day of Introduction to Cognitive Science freshman year, I had no idea what cog sci was, except that “cognitive” meant something along the lines of “brain.” I created a Turing machine that could determine whether any string of x’s and y’s was a palindrome. All it needed was a set of rules, and the machine was infallible. But as soon as I added a z into the input string, it broke down completely: No Rule Defined, it told me. Because my human brain does not break down and halt in the middle of problem solving, it was evident to me that there aren’t Turing machines in our heads, but instead something else, something more complex than states and rules, that must shape how we think, sense, and act in the world.

Lessons on Chinese grammar, cultures of South American tribes, and programming a for-loop also triggered mind-related thoughts and curiosities in my foreign language, anthropology, and computer science classes. In Perception & Action, I learned more about ants than almost any human would desire to know. An ant colony is a miraculously intelligent system, another example of a product much greater than the sum of its parts. Context alone determines an individual ant’s role and how and when he will carry it out. The ant lives in a constantly changing world, but instead of causing a break down, as such a world would for a Turing machine, it encourages various behaviors that contribute to the colony’s overall success.

What does this mean for the study of human minds? It means that our perceptions, thoughts, and actions are inseparable from the contexts in which they occur. We are situated in the world, and numerous aspects of our world, like prior experiences, culture, and other people, play a prominent role in shaping what we may intuitively believe occurs only or primarily in our heads.

As I prepare to begin a new chapter in my Cognitive Science career, I expect (and hope) that my appreciation of context will color the ways in which I move forward. My devotion to the importance of context has taught me to question everything. It is important to question whether studies done under different circumstances (i.e., outside a lab) and with different subpopulations (i.e., not westernized college undergrads) may have resulted in different conclusions. It is important to question whether there may be ways of viewing the world that differ from my own view (i.e., as cyclical as opposed to linear, or correlational as opposed to causal) that may shape the research questions posed, methods employed, and findings extracted. I hope that by doing this, my mind will remain open to new possibilities, continually working toward achieving the most comprehensive understanding of the mind possible.