In a nutshell, Dr. Keith Chen, a Yale economics professor, argues languages that use a special construction to form the future tense create more of a cognitive separation between the present and the future. English is one of those languages, and for that reason he states that English speakers are more likely to smoke, more likely to be inactive and obese, and, most importantly to him, less likely to save money.

I read the original research paper after watching the video. I found the theory intriguing, but I also had some concerns with the conclusions and methodology.

Professor Chen uses German as an example of a “futureless” language, in that you can use the present tense to form the future — e.g., Morgen regnet es — Tomorrow it rains (instead of ‘Tomorrow, it will rain.’). In fact, German does have a constructed future, using the word werden — e.g., Ich werde Gitarre spielen (I will play the guitar).

The paper, I feel, infers causation (speaking a futured language makes you less likely to save money) from correlation, which is a common logical fallacy in academic studies. Furthermore, the conclusions Professor Chen makes have very likely been confounded: Despite controlling for socioeconomic factors, general culture and lifestyle are inextricable influences on the behaviors he studies.

Noam Chomsky believes that all languages share the same underlying structure. That, combined with the fact that humans are all born with the same capacity for language learning, means that language should not affect cognitive processes. As far as I’m aware, there is no scientific evidence that language dramatically shapes speakers’ ways of thinking.

Overall, I got the impression that Professor Chen simply used a psychological phenomenon to make a socioeconomic conclusion which seems inconsistent to me. Psychology has a theory called hyperbolic discounting, which attempts to explain why some people forsake the future by smoking and being inactive. It took me a year of university to understand this theory, but to simplify as much as possible, we forgo long-term rewards (even if they are greater) in favor of immediate satisfaction because of uncertainty about the future — we don’t know if or when the reward will come.

Life is actually just a huge marshmallow experiment.