How you speak about time affects your behaviour across time!

You probably know that language plays a role in how we perceive reality, social psychologists have been telling us about this for quite some time.

I still find it surprising though – the extent to which this is true. It makes me return to the age-old question of whether there really is such a thing as absolute truth, facts and reality.

A paper published in the journal of consumer research in the U.S suggests that we can change behaviour by simply changing language. A simple example is the impact of substituting the words “I can’t” with “I don’t”. University students in the U.S were trained to resist temptation of unhealthy foods by either saying ‘I can’t eat xyz’ or ‘I don’t eat xyz’. Later they were offered a choice between a chocolate bar and a slightly healthy granola bar. For those in the ‘I can’t’ self-talk, less than 40% made the healthier option meanwhile almost 67% of those in the ‘I don’t’ self-talk group chose the healthier option. Can’t is disempowering, it implies that there are restrictions and someone else is in control. Don’t is empowering, it implies you are in control. This research suggests that how we speak about things can influence how we behave towards them. 

Keith Chen did a Ted talk in February 2013 speaking about this very phenomenon. His talk focused on new research showing the link between the structure of how we speak and the propensity to save. Research suggest that countries which on many levels seem to be on an equal footing in terms of industrialisation, development etc still seem to have huge disparities on their savings behaviour. A simple example is how Norway saves more than a quarter of its GDP while Poland, Greece and the U.K come shy of that with about 20%. 

The structure of language and how it informs your thinking plays a vital role in behaviour. One differentiating factor is how languages speak about time. In english you would make a clear distinction between something which happened yesterday, something which is currently happening and something which will happen in the future. In Chinese languages for example, the time spectrum between yesterday, today and tomorrow is not distinguished. It seems how you speak about time affects your behaviour across time. If you speak a "future language", you're more likely to distance yourself from the future and your behaviour might reflect that. If you speak a “futureless language” there is no clear distinction between the present and the future and your behaviour will reflect that as well. 

According to Keith's research nations with futureless languages tend to, on average save more that those where language forces you to distinguish the future from the present. Bear in mind that the comparison is between structurally similar countries to account for other factors which could influence savings. Examples of countries with futureless languages include Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Finland and Japan. 

Part of the research was to compare families on an extreme level on granularity based on country of birth, family structure, religion, number of kids in the family, level of income etc. This is like taking 2 families which are close to identical (to control for different factors mentioned above) and putting them head to head on their level of savings.  For example if you compare 2 identical families from Nigeria one speaking Hausa and one speaking Igbo (you’re comparing 2 "identical" families across the world one of whom speaks a futureless language and one does not) the results are staggering. On average futureless languages save more, retiring with more than 25% more in savings. These nations are also 20-24% less likely to smoke, 13-17% less likely to be obese and 21% more likely to have used a condom in their last sexual encounter. This all speaks to the impact of clearly distinguishing the future from the present. If your language makes the distinction very clear, it makes it easier for you to distance yourself from the consequences of tomorrow. You know my stance on this, reader. It’s already tomorrow in Australia, it’s the future.


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