Keith Chen's recent proposal that the grammar of tense marking in a language has a causal effect on future-oriented financial and health behaviors is too intriguing to resist talking about. In fact, it reminds me of the words of a prominent linguist who once announced during his talk: "The explanation in question is almost certain to be false. However, if it were true, it would be incredibly interesting, so we have no choice but to explore it."
I'm not sure that this is the best argument for, say, how research funding should be allocated. At least, I've never had the guts to put that in a grant proposal. But if Language Log isn't the place to explore almost-certainly-false-but-incredibly-interesting-if-true ideas, then I don't know what is.
The main finding is that there is a robust correlation such that families who speak a language in which future tense marking is classified as obligatory tend to also engage in self-sabotaging behaviors like saving less money, exercising less and smoking more. Geoff Pullum and Mark Liberman have already made some very cogent remarks here and here, airing concerns over the linguistic analysis of the languages implicated in the correlation, and over the likelihood of spurious correlations arising. Keith Chen has graciously responded to some of these remarks. Dr. Chen is especially persuaded by the fact that the correlation holds if we look only at families who have otherwise been matched on a slew of variables that might serve as possible confounds: country of birth and residence, sex and age of family members, family structure, income, number of children, and religion. If families who are identical with respect to these variables but who differ in the language they speak at home behave in strikingly different ways, then surely this is suggestive of a causal role for language structure.
Controlling for such variables offers only mild reassurance if any, I think, and misses some of the sociological reasons for why otherwise very similar families would choose to speak different languages in the first place—I suspect this choice is often driven by the extent to which people value the culture and practices of that particular linguistic community, and by the strength of personal connection they have to it. So if we suppose, as suggested by Mark Liberman, that both grammar and cultural practices have independently spread throughout the same population despite having no causal connection with each other, then we might find that such a correlation would even be magnified if we restricted our analysis to contrasting families who differ primarily with respect to the choices they've made about which language to speak at home—again, all without there being any causal connection between the grammar and cultural practices of that community.
I'm reminded, for example, of Bill Labov's famous Martha's Vineyard study, in which he found a correlation between a specific feature of a regional dialect (i.e. the pronunciation of words like ice and right with a slightly raised vowel) and the extent to which the islanders valued their traditional way of life and resented the growing influx of mainlanders onto their island. It may well be that if Labov had looked at all of the possible confounding variables that Chen has taken into consideration, he would still have found a correlation between vowel raising and local attitudes. But no one has ever suggested that vowel raising somehow played a causal role in shaping people's attitudes. Nor has anyone suggested the converse and offered a phonological theory of how a language's vowel space is determined by the inward-looking culture of its speakers. But the result is far from uninformative. Rather, it's properly understood as a sociolinguistic phenomenon: Labov suggested that people adopt specific patterns of pronunciation as a way of subconsciously signaling solidarity with a particular community and its attitudinal mindset. Vowel raising and islander traditions and attitudes developed independently side by side. But by virtue of their co-occurrence, vowel-raising had become a sort of identity badge for broadcasting one's attitudes. I think it's well worth keeping sociolinguistic factors prominently in mind throughout the whole debate over tense marking and its impact on behaviour. I'm betting it's not going to be possible to really understand so-called Whorfian effects without getting a handle on them.
A causal explanation between vowel raising and distrust of outsiders is a non-starter for the simple reason that there's no plausible mechanism by which the former could influence the latter. But Chen is right to suggest that one could tell a plausible causal story between tense marking and actions that impact one's future self. The trouble is, correlational studies can only get us so far when there are several viable competing explanations for the correlation. So, what would it take to make a compelling case for a causal connection between grammatical tense marking and financial saving?
This is where experiments can help—we can actually manipulate a variable, and look at whether it has an impact on some behavior we're interested in. So let's run through some possibilities. Ideally, I'd love to be able test Chen's hypothesis by treating languages like transgenic mice: tinker with the DNA of a language like Greek or Spanish to tweak its critical grammatical properties, and observe the effects on the organisms learning them. But a knockout gene experiment of language and thought would be a touch impractical, especially in the current research funding climate. It would require legions of randomly-selected volunteers to agree to live out their lives as speakers of an artificially-altered language such as Greek'—just like Greek, but minus the future tense markers. Perhaps a more skilled grant-writer than I could lobby the International Monetary Fund for the money to run such large-scale experiments, holding out the implied promise of fiscal reform through language policy (if a Brazilian government can ban the present participle, surely the European Union can legislate tense marking?)
In a slightly more serious vein, we should be able to get some mileage from more constrained and realistic experimental scenarios. 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. If that's so, then we should be able to see the effects of these little mental nudges on specific behaviors that we target experimentally. Luckily, the experimental psychology literature is riddled with precedents for an experimental paradigm in which bits of language serve as effective behavioural nudges—for instance, a well-known study by John Bargh and colleagues has famously shown that you can prime meek behavior by having subjects unscramble sentences laced with words like graciously, respect, and honor, and that undergraduates exposed to words like gray, Florida, and bingo undergo accelerated aging, performing badly on memory tests, and walking more slowly. Here on Language Log ("Don't read this post: Be a Language Log reader", 7/22/2011), David Beaver has discussed a particularly interesting study in which people were more likely to vote in an election depending on the wording of a question they'd been asked the previous day: If subjects were asked "how important is it to you to be a voter?" they were dramatically more likely to cast their ballot than if they'd been asked "how important is to you to vote?"
So, we could easily set up a study that looked like this: To control for variables other than language, we might target a group of bilingual speakers of one language that obligatorily marks future tense (e.g. French) and one that does not (e.g. German). This group could then be randomly split, with half of them being made to describe or read about some future event in German and the other half in French. Both groups could then be given a mock investment task that involves making decisions about how much to save versus how much to spend now. In theory, those randomly assigned to the German experimental group should be eager to save more than the French group. Just to be sure to control for any spurious differences between our random groups, we could make each group come back the following week and do the same tasks in their other language, predicting the theoretically-appropriate increase or decrease in their inclination to save for the future.
Suppose we got a nifty result like this. I'm afraid we still wouldn't be able to conclude that grammatical tense marking of a language has an impact on the financial planning habits of its speakers. Why not? Because, it turns out, linguistic nudges can be incredibly coarse and belong to a very broad class of stimuli that prime behaviors by virtue of their association with certain concepts or behaviors. It's true that you can elicit rude or polite behavior with certain words. But you can also prime behavior with just about any stimuli that elicit social stereotypes—people become more aggressive after seeing images of African Americans, perform better on tests after being primed with thoughts of professors rather than soccer hooligans, resist the pressure to conform socially more often after they've seen a photo of a punk rocker than a picture of an accountant, and behave more competitively if they're in a room with a briefcase rather than a backpack. Asian girls, apparently, do better on math tests if primed to think about their ethnic background, and worse if primed to think about their gender. Heck, even logos can prime behavior by virtue of their associations—in one study, subjects who saw subliminal images of the Apple logo performed better on a subsequent creativity test than those who'd seen subliminal images of the IBM logo.
All of this should lead us to worry that our hypothetical research subjects are being primed less by the grammar of their languages, and more by the cultural associations of their languages. In fact, there's some good evidence that language can serve as just this sort of generic social cue, as discussed in Language Log a few years ago ("Non-Whorfian linguistic determinism", 1/2/2009). A 2010 study by Dirk Akkermans and colleagues serves as a particularly nice illustration. In the Akkermans et al. study, Dutch subjects played a business variant of the Prisoner's Dilemma game, intended to test the degree of cooperative versus competitive behavior that subjects would choose as a strategy to maximize profits. (The game is set up so that you reap the highest profits if both you and your partner choose a cooperative strategy of keeping prices for your products high, and the lowest profits if you play cooperatively but your partner chooses to undersell you.) Half of the subjects played the game in English, and half played the game in Dutch—the idea being that the English language is more closely associated with highly individualistic and competitive cultures than Dutch. The subjects who played the game in English did indeed choose a more competitive strategy than those who played it in Dutch. But the effects of language on strategy choice were especially prominent for those who'd lived in an Anglophone country for at least three months; among this group, those who played the game in Dutch played cooperatively 51% of the time, while those who played it in English did so only 37% of the time. In contrast, among those who hadn't spent more than three months in an Anglophone country, the rates for cooperative behavior were 48% for Dutch, and 45% for English. So, the effects of language were strongly mediated by how much direct exposure to Anglophone culture the subjects had. Actual proficiency in English turned out to play no discernible role at all.
Results like these, showing cultural associative effects of language, are sometimes referred to as Whorfian effects (and indeed, the authors of the above paper interpret their results as supportive of the weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). But this is puzzling to me. It's not at all clear that this is really a linguistic effect at all. I suspect you would get very similar results if you primed subjects with images of American versus Dutch flags, or recognizable national figures, or perhaps even national symbols like bald eagles versus tulips. It's certainly interesting that languages can serve as repositories for cultural associations—in fact, it's a phenomenon that's quite worthy of study in its own right. But it's not likely to be related in any way to grammatical structure. If we must, perhaps we could refer to such results as socio-Whorfian effects.
But Chen is interested in the impact of grammar on behavior, and so, to experimentally test his hypothesis, we have to go a bit further than simply demonstrating forward-looking financial planning after exposure to German as opposed to French. We'd have to show that exposure to the tense marking of future time in a language has an impact over and above any effects from mere exposure to the language, since the language as a whole may bring along with it various cultural associations. This would be perfectly do-able: If we tested half of our subjects by having them tell a story about a past event, and had the other half describe a future event, we'd predict that the impact of language on financial behavior should be markedly more robust for the group talking about a future event, and thereby forced to use a future tense marker.
Personally, I'm not willing to plunk down any-sized bet that these predictions would come out. If I had to bet any portion of my Language Log royalties, I'd put my money on a socio-Whorfian effect showing an effect of language, but no additional impact of future tense. But Chen has identified a not-crazy hypothesis, and some correlations that are worth thinking about, even worth experimentally investigating. Besides, if the study did show a true Whorfian effect, it would be, well, incredibly interesting.