Similar analyses showed that speaking a language that does not have obligatory future markers, such as Mandarin, makes people accumulate more retirement assets, smoke less, exercise more, and generally be healthier in older age. Countries’ national savings rates are also affected by language. Having a larger proportion of people speaking languages that does not have obligatory future markers makes national savings rates higher.
This is an unconventional way of explaining people’s consumption-saving decisions and health-related behavior. More conventional factors include dispositional, situational, motivational, and cultural factors. The marshmallow studies focus on dispositional factors—being able to delay gratification is an innate ability. Other research has looked at situational factors. For example, researchers have shown that simply rearranging the placement of food and beverages in a cafeteria can improve sales of healthy items. Other research focused on motivational factors. People often need to curb their current desire to consume in order to reach their future goal of getting out of debt. Researchers have shown that closing smaller debt accounts first gives a sense of accomplishment early on, boosts motivation, and increases the likelihood of completely getting rid of debt. The motivational effect is beneficial even if closing off smaller debt accounts does not make economic sense, for instance when the bigger debt accounts have higher interest rates attached to them. Other research has investigated cultural factors. It has been argued that Americans spend more than they need to because they want to emulate the lifestyles and spending patterns of people who are much richer than themselves. Chen’s findings suggest that maybe we should focus more on how we talk about the future in order to improve our intertemporal decision making.
These results also provide evidence for the language-cognition link, which has stirred some controversy among researchers. Early 20th century thinkers such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Ludwig Wittgenstein were among the first who argued that language can impact the way people think and act. More recently Steven Pinker argued that we think in a universal grammar and languages do not significantly shape our thinking. The issue is still hotly debated.
At a more practical level, researchers have been looking for ways to help people act in accordance with their long-term interests. Recent findings suggest that making the future feel closer to the present might improve future-oriented behavior. For instance, researchers recently presented people with renderings of their future selves made using age-progression algorithms that forecast how physical appearances would change over time. One group of participants saw a digital representation of their current selves in a virtual mirror, and the other group saw an age-morphed version of their future selves. Those participants who saw the age-morphed version of their future selves allocated more money toward a hypothetical savings account. The intervention brought people’s future to the present and as a result they saved more for the future.
Chen’s research shows that language structures our future-related thoughts. Language has been used before to alter time perception with surprising effects. Ellen Langer and colleagues famously improved older people’s physical health by simple interventions including asking them to talk about the events of twenty years ago as if it they were happening now. Talking about the past as if it were the present changed people’s mindsets and their mindsets affected their physical states. Chen’s research points at the possibility that the way we talk about the future can shape our mindsets. Language can move the future back and forth in our mental space and this might have dramatic influences on our judgments and decisions.
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