Doonesbury for Sept. 12:
I'm probably the only Doonesbury reader who saw this strip in terms of variation in future time reference.
Becca makes two references to things happening in the future. In one case she uses plain "is" — "Your pub date is November 14" — but she could have said "Your pub date will be November 14" or "Your pub date is going to be November 14". In the other case she uses "will" — "I"ll tell publicity" — but could have been "I'm telling publicity" or "I'm going to tell publicity". Jeff checks his calendar for November 14, since "I may be on a mission", but (…ignoring mere practicalities of speech-balloon letter count…) he could have said something like "It's possible that I'll be on a mission".
These options came to mind because I was thinking about Keith Chen's work, which found "a strong and robust negative correlation between the obligatory marking of [future time reference] in the language a family speaks, and a whole host of forward-looking behaviors, like saving, exercising, and refraining from smoking".
Geoff Pullum and I treated this idea with a certain amount of skepticicm ("Keith Chen, Whorfian economist", 2/9/2012; "Cultural diffusion and the Whorfian hypothesis", 2/12/2012), but Keith responded with a robust defense ("Whorfian Economics", 2/21/2012). Last week, he gave a talk about this stuff at the LDC's 20th Anniversary Workshop:
Languages differ widely in the ways they partition time. In this paper I test the hypothesis that languages that do not grammatically distinguish between present and future events (what linguists call weak-FTR languages) lead their speakers to take more future-oriented actions. First, I show how this prediction arises naturally when well-documented effects of language on cognition are merged with models of decision making over time. Then, I show that consistent with this hypothesis, speakers of weak-FTR languages save more, hold more retirement wealth, smoke less, are less likely to be obese, and enjoy better long-run health. This is true in every major region of the world and holds even when comparing only demographically similar individuals born and living in the same country. The evidence does not support the most obvious forms of common causation. I discuss implications of these findings for theories of intertemporal choice.
English counts as a non-weak-FTR language in Keith's taxonomy (derived from Östen Dahl’s EUROTYP typology). But as Geoff Pullum noted in his LLOG post, and as the exchange between Becca and Jeff illustrates, English allows quite a bit of variation in reference to future time events and states, including use of forms that can also be used to refer to the present, like "Your pub date is…" and "I may be on a mission".
So during Keith's recent visit to Philadelphia, we discussed the possibility that among English speakers, individual differences in choices among ways of referring to future time would correlate with individual differences in estimated discount rates.
There's a raft of experimental economics studies on individual differences in elicited discount rates, with demonstrated connections to variation in a wide variety of behaviors, from savings and investment choices to job preferences. Thus Nava Ashraf et al., "Tying Odysseus to the Mast: Evidence From a Commitment Savings Product in the Philippines", The Quarterly Journal of Economics 2006:
We designed a commitment savings product for a Philippine bank and implemented it using a randomized control methodology. The savings product was intended for individuals who want to commit now to restrict access to their savings, and who were sophisticated enough to engage in such a mechanism. We conducted a baseline survey on 1777 existing or former clients of a bank. One month later, we offered the commitment product to a randomly chosen subset of 710 clients; 202 (28.4 percent) accepted the offer and opened the account. In the baseline survey, we asked hypothetical time discounting questions. Women who exhibited a lower discount rate for future relative to current trade-offs, and hence potentially have a preference for commitment, were indeed significantly more likely to open the commitment savings account.
I don't know of any reason to think that English speakers will show stable individual differences in the distribution of future-time-reference choices — on the contrary, this distribution should be affected by many variable contextual factors, starting with priming effects. And for that matter, elicited discount-rate estimates are surely also modified by context.
On the other hand, if you hold the context more or less constant across subjects for both estimates — for instance, if the future-time-reference patterns are elicited in a discussion of the choices that yield the discount-rate estimates — you might hope that individual differences in future time reference would correlate with individual differences in apparent discount rate.
And because priming effects should make it easy to modify future-time-reference choices, you might be able to get some evidence on the direction of causality in relating these patterns.
Update — Ben Zimmer reminds us that in the case of the past week of Doonesbury strips, the future is the past, since they're flashbacks from strips that ran a year ago: