Keith Chen's new research suggests that the language you speak may impact the way you think about your future.

Why you should listen

Does the future look like a different world to you, or more like an extension of the present? In an intriguing piece of research, Keith Chen suggests that your attitude about the future has a strong relationship to the language you speak. In a nutshell, some languages refer to the future using verb helpers like "will" and "shall," while others don't have specific verbs to refer to future actions. Chen correlated these two different language types with remarkably different rates of saving for the future (guess who saves more?). He calls this connection the "futurity" of languages. The paper is in the process of being published by the American Economic Review, and it's already generated discussion. Chen says: "While the data I analyze don’t allow me to completely understand what role language plays in these relationships, they suggest that there is something really remarkable to be explained about the interaction of language and economic decision-making. These correlations are so strong and survive such an aggressive set of controls, that the chances they arise by random lies somewhere between one in 10,000 and one in 10^32."

Chen excels in asking unusual questions to yield original results. Another recent work (with Yale colleague and TEDGlobal 2009 speaker Laurie Santos) examined how monkeys view economic risk--with surprisingly humanlike irrationality. While a current working paper asks a surprising, if rhetorical, question: Does it make economic sense for a woman to become a physician?

Read more about Chen's explorations »

What others say

“The idea behind Chen's proposal is that every encounter with a distinct grammatical marker for future time creates a little mental nudge that leads to a conceptual partition between present and future time, and hence, a de-valuing of future benefits relative to present benefits.” — Julie Sedivy in Language Log

Keith Chen’s TED talks

Keith Chen on the TED Blog

News

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Culture

5 examples of how the languages we speak can affect the way we think

February 19, 2013

Economist Keith Chen starts today’s talk with an observation: to say, “This is my uncle,” in Chinese, you have no choice but to encode more information about said uncle. The language requires that you denote the side the uncle is on, whether he’s related by marriage or birth and, if it’s your father’s brother, whether […]

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Quotes from Keith Chen