Bad at planning for the future? You might be able to blame your language. Differences in the way various languages talk about the present and future could help explain why Germans urge free-spending Greeks to adopt their fiscal discipline, and why Americans are baffled by China’s low consumption and high savings rates, according to research published in the American Economic Review in April
Keith Chen, a behavioral economist at the University of California-Los Angeles, researches intertemporal decision-making, or how people make choices when the consequences of those choices are spread out over time. Do you spend your money on a fancy sports car, or save up for retirement? Spend a spare hour working out, or relaxing in front of the television? He noticed that a group of countries whose thrifty behavior baffled economists had also attracted attention from linguists. “Every country economists thought of as an outlier in savings behavior was also an outlier in grammar,” Chen says.
Members of an Aboriginal community in Australia who speak a language with no words for left and right, for example, are better at perceiving cardinal directions than English speakers. They think of timelines as moving not left to right, but east to west, according to a 2010 study in the journal Psychological Science.
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