Individual discount rates and future reference in English

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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:



  1. AJD said,

    September 16, 2012 @ 8:50 am

    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

    Certainly my prior expectation, in the absence of direct evidence for or against them, would be that such individual differences exist, since sociolinguistics regularly finds such inter-speaker differences for a whole host of variable features.

    [(myl) At the same time, we know that all of those variable features are subject to priming, sometimes called "accommodation", as well as genre and register effects.]

    Also, it's not obvious to me that "Your pub date is November 14" is future-time reference at all, so much as a description of the current state of affairs involving Jeff's manuscript. Consider a publisher that, as a result of poor planning, kept having to postpone its publication dates; someone might say "Your pub date was October 31st, but now it's November 14th; tomorrow, who knows, maybe it'll be November 21st." Under that reading the pub date is a parameter that's associated with the manuscript at a particular time, and Becca's sentence refers to the present value of the parameter, not a future value.

    [(myl) It's still a sentence that can be used to talk about the future. If we were talking about a mortgage arrangement, for example, we could say "The payment starts at $X a month, and rises to $Y on such--and-such a date"; or we could say "The payment will start at $X a month, and will rise to $Y a month on such-and-such a date". Keith's claim is that speakers of languages that have something like the second form tend to discount the future more heavily (and therefore tend to save less, engage in more risky or damaging behavior etc.), because they see the future as more different from the present; while speakers of languages in which the second form doesn't exist tend to discount future events less heavily, because it seems more like the present to them.]

  2. MattF said,

    September 16, 2012 @ 9:36 am


    I agree. 'Your pub date is November 14' refers to a schedule that exists in the present. On the other hand, 'Your book is published November 14' refers to a future event.

  3. Ellen K. said,

    September 16, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    The previous posts here on Language log said nothing about obligatory future tense marking. Geoff Pullum's post said, "clear grammatical future tense marking". Not the same as obligatory. Spanish has a true future tense, but one can talk about the future without using it.

  4. Ellen K. said,

    September 16, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    P.S. Okay, I see Chen's followup post did say that, but the previous two did not.

  5. linda seebach said,

    September 16, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

    I saw earlier today — sorry, didn't note where at the time — something about "the current embassy attacks, followed previously by [earlier attacks on American ] . . ."

    Google has lot of hits on the phrase, in contexts like ". . . change from the policy they followed previously" but not like this.

  6. Rubrick said,

    September 16, 2012 @ 8:04 pm

    I continue to question Chen's assertion that he's testing the hypothesis that weak-FTR languages "lead their speakers to take more future-oriented actions". Has he really demonstrated causation? It certainly doesn't sound like it from the abstract.

  7. AJD said,

    September 16, 2012 @ 10:42 pm

    My claim is that "Your pub date is November 14" is not a sentence about the future but rather a sentence about the present, as MattF says. On this reading "Your pub date is November 14" doesn't have the same meaning as "Your pub date will be November 14"; the latter means(/implicates) '(we haven't officially determined your pub date yet, but when we do) we will choose November 14'.

    I'm not disputing that the unmarked present-tense can be used with future-reference meaning, and I certainly have no grounds for debating Keith's claim—I'm just questioning your assertion that this particular sentence is an example of future-time reference.

    Also, the fact that intra-speaker variability exists doesn't eliminate the possibility that stable inter-speaker differences will also exist, of course; the a priori expectation would be that this variable exhibits both.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 9:43 am

    One can even paraphrase this particular sentence into passive voice / perfect aspect, as in "Your pub date has been set for November 14." How strong the implicature that the pub date will, in fact, then actually occur on Nov. 14 depends on background knowledge about how the publishing business works. On the other hand, one can alternate between present and marked-future constructions for future events that are highly certain to occur as predicted. E.g., "Sunset is at 7 pm tonight" versus "Sunset will be at 7 pm tonight." If there's some nuance in emphasis between those two, I don't see it, and I would be surprised to learn it has anything to do with implicit discount rates. But who knows whether the consequences of variation among speakers which permits such variation should or should not carry over to a comparison between speakers of langauge A where one approach is obligatory with speakers of language B where a contrasting approach is obligatory.

    Back when I was an undergraduate linguistics student in the '80's, I did a pretty lousy research paper (long on superficial description; short on any sort of thoughtful analysis) comparing the development of future-tense constructions in the different Germanic languages (i.e. because they didn't seem to start with one at the proto-Germanic stage, different languages grabbed onto different auxiliary verbs, modal and otherwise, to develop such constructions). I've blotted out the details from my memory, but I certainly didn't have any speculative crypto-Whorfian account to give of the consequences of these differences, although going back and thinking about it one wonders whether German's use of "werden" in this context has something to do with German-philosophy-dudes (um, I think I'm thinking of Heidegger but can't be bothered to confirm by googling) to contrast capital-B Becoming with capital-B Being.

  9. Oliver C said,

    September 20, 2012 @ 11:41 am

    I'm not a native speaker of English. I learned that in phrases like "I'll tell publicity", the choice of "will" marks a stronger commitment than "going to" would. If this is true, it kind of runs contrary to the assumptions about the use of future tense and actions.

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