Economics

Marshmallows and Rösti(graben)

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Science  04 Jan 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6115, pp. 11-12
DOI: 10.1126/science.339.6115.11-d
CREDIT: THINKSTOCK

Does the language we speak influence how we think? Chen adds to the lengthy and continuing discussion of this question by linking language to future-oriented behaviors, such as a child who resists the temptation to eat one marshmallow right now so as to be given two marshmallows to enjoy just a few minutes later. He does so by noting that the marking of future tense is obligatory in some languages (French) and suggests that this induces a cognitive representation of the future as being distinct from the present; in other words, tomorrow is less a continuation of today and more a new day altogether. This leads to the expectation that countries in which so-called strong future-time reference languages predominate would exhibit lower rates of future-oriented behavior, such as saving and exercise. Looking across countries in the World Values Survey confirms this prediction, even after controlling for various geographic, cultural, and institutional factors. Furthermore, looking within countries, such as Switzerland, that feature both strong and weak future-time reference language speakers reveals that the German-speaking Swiss save at more than twice the rate of their fellows on the other side of the linguistic divide.

Am. Econ. Rev., in press (2013); http://cowles.econ.yale.edu/P/cd/d18a/d1820.pdf.

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