The Power of the Future Tense

Some time ago, I mentioned economist Keith Chen’s finding that speakers of “futured” languages (languages with a clear future tense) tend to be less responsible about planning for the future than speakers of “futureless” languages (which make a much weaker distinction between present and future). His published research has since been picked up by the Atlantic.

In “Can Your Language Influence Your Spending, Eating, and Smoking Habits?Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson recounts how Chen’s “absurd-sounding claim” was savaged by critics, then retested and confirmed by experts. “Americans don’t save money because of … our grammar?” In fact, yes.

Speakers of “futured” languages (like English) see the future as separate and distant from the present, so they may be more likely to disregard the future consequences of present actions. Chen found that they save less money, smoke more, and are more likely to be obese. Whereas speakers of “futureless” languages see the present and future as equally important, so they’re more likely, for example, to forgo spending today in order to save for retirement.

The Atlantic coverage also features this elegant video version of Chen’s research.