Full text of Professor Keith Chen’s talk: The Impact of Language on Economic Behavior at TEDxYale conference. In this talk, behavioral economist Keith Chen focuses on how people’s economic choices and attitudes are influenced by their language. In simple terms, does your language affect your ability to save money?
Keith Chen – Behavioral economist
Thank you very much.
So in the spirit of this afternoon’s conference, I want to take this opportunity to talk with you a little bit about some new work I’m doing and how it all started — because I saw a map that really freaked me out.
Let me show you that map and give you a little bit of background.
Just to start things off and explain, I’m a behavioral economist here at Yale. And so, one of the things I study is how people make decisions over time:
So, how people think about the future and how people think about the future that influences their behavior with respect to saving, with respect to studying for your exams, with respect to sticking to a diet, with respect to quitting smoking.
Now, what about this map freaked me out in particular?
So let me just say this was a map that was released by the European Science Foundation in the late 1990s. And in particular what freaked me out was this area in blue. Let me put it on a different map so it’s a little bit easier to recognize.
What this is is a map of Northern Europe. And what really, really kind of threw me for a curve was that the European Science Foundation had released a report that a number of kind of very, very reputable researchers had claimed that all of the areas inside this blue region were utterly and totally futureless.
That’s something of an extreme statement.
So I mean, as an economist, I’m someone used to, for example, making predictions that go horribly awry, but this almost takes the cake. You know, perhaps with the exception of Iceland – you can think about current European financial crisis – and the other areas inside this blue area actually are almost perfectly the countries that are doing the best.
And as an economist, what I would say is it seems crazy to call these places futureless. I mean, these places are all full of countries that are saving a tremendous amount of money, households that are saving a tremendous amount of money, countries that don’t have problems with their bonds and are investing a tremendous amount in public infrastructure and in the future — they just seem to care a lot about the future.
What I realized that led to this confusion, though, is that the team of researchers at the European Science Foundation led by kind of a superstar named Austin Dole, they weren’t talking about what an economist would mean when they say that a place is futureless, because this was a team of linguists.
And what they were saying was that, in fact, not that the households in this region don’t kind of care about the future, but that the languages in this region don’t really talk about the future in the same way that languages outside this area talk.
And what that led me to think about — which I’m going to tell you a little bit about right now — is the connection between economics, how you feel about the future and how your language forces you to talk about the future.
Okay. Let me explain a little bit about what that means.
So, for example – you can probably tell – I’m Chinese, and, you know, growing up I realized that Chinese families are different in many interesting ways.
What’s a little bit subtle — and that I didn’t realize till much later — is that the Chinese language actually forces Chinese speakers to talk about families in subtly different ways. So let me give you an example.
Suppose that a bunch of your friends come to you and say, “Would you like to go out for dinner?”
If you were speaking English with your friends, you could say, “You know, that sounds great. I’m really, really sorry, though, I have an uncle in town, and tomorrow I’m going to go out to dinner with him.”
Now, if you were speaking Chinese to your friends instead, actually, Chinese the language would force you to include a lot more information that I didn’t just say.
So, for example, there is no general word for uncle in Chinese; instead, what you’d have to specify, what you’d be forced by your language to tell your friends is whether this was an uncle on your mother’s side of the family or your father’s side of the family, and in fact, you’d be forced to say whether or not this was an uncle by birth or by marriage.
So, this is actually a very, very fundamental characteristic of language.
And as you see up there, the linguist Roman Jakobson expressed this best when he said, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.”
So in this sense, Chinese is forcing you to say a lot to your friends about the structure of your family in ways that if you’re an English speaker, you could very well think, “Well, they don’t need to know,” or “It’s none of their business.”