The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets

Keith Chen

Keith Chen

by Keith Chen
Associate Professor of Economics
Yale School of Management
Comments are welcome at keith.chen@gmail.com

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[Quite frankly, I am not sure that Keith Chen’s new research suggesting that the language you speak may impact the way you think about your future has anything to do with Ilocanos’ being generally naimut, kuripot, skinflints, tightwads, thrifty, etc. Nonetheless, I find it provocatively interesting to test Chen’s ‘futureless language/higher savings rate’ hypothesis across various ethnic language groups in the Philippines. — Joe Padre]

Abstract: Languages differ widely in the ways they encode time. I test the hypothesis that languages that grammatically associate the future and the present, foster future-oriented behavior. This prediction arises naturally when well-documented effects of language structure are merged with models of intertemporal choice. Empirically, I find that speakers of such languages: save more, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese. This holds both across countries and within countries when comparing demographically similar native households. The evidence does not support the most obvious forms of common causation. I discuss implications for theories of intertemporal choice.

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