No Future? Fantastic!

By Aaron Gertler:

“I saw a map that really freaked me out.”

At the first annual TEDx Yale conference, School of Management professor Keith Chen wasn’t shy about sharing the unorthodox motivation for his latest experiment. He recently published a paper titled “The Effect of Language of Economic Behavior”, which paired linguistics and behavioral economics (could you guess?) in unprecedented fashion.

Chen showed a crowd of 350 his freaky map – nations circled according to the properties of their common languages. Notably, one property applied to the outskirts of Europe—including Britain, Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland—while the other caught the continent’s center, comprising Germany, Finland and Sweden, among other nations. Most viewers laughed, while a few moaned; whatever variable Chen had found, it mirrored the path of Europe’s financial meltdown—the struggling coastal nations and stalwart Scandinavia—almost to perfection.

Keith Chen presented startling data in SSS 114 as one of TEDx Yale's three economists. (Courtesy Yale School of Management).

“Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey,” Chen told the audience. He then explained how he partitioned the world’s dialects. Certain languages have what Chen calls “weak FTR” – they fail to differentiate the future and the present. Where an speaker of strong-FTR English might say “it’s going to rain tomorrow,” Germans can only say “it rains tomorrow”, blurring their tenses. Chen explained that Mandarin works the same way: a friend might excuse himself from a party with “Can’t go out tomorrow, I eat with uncle.”

But what separates nations with strong and weak-FTR languages? Chen noticed immediately that people whose speech tied their present actions to their future conditions were less likely to smoke or become obese. Most importantly for his research, they saved more money than strong-FTR speakers—an average of 170,000 more euros for their retirements. Another graph Chen displayed plotted 76 countries on a graph measuring FTR strength and savings rates; the trend line undeniably backed his conclusions.

In a social-science coup de grâce, Chen announced to the audience that next-door neighbors who speak different languages, and whose demographics and family lives are otherwise near-identical, have wildly differing savings and obesity rates—again, predicted by the tenses permitted in their native tongue.

What does this mean for speakers of English, Spanish, and other strong-FTR languages? Are we doomed to fall behind Germany and China in our drive for a stable future? Chen, given roughly ten minutes to speak, had no answer. His paper’s conclusion, though, offers hope: “mainly, self-reported measures of savings as a cultural value appear to drive savings behavior”. Even if English isn’t suited to saving, we might still have a chance if we cultivate a culture of thrift and farsightedness.

Aaron Gertler ’15 is in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at