Mailliard-webEconomists dating back to Adam Smith in the 1700s have wondered why savings behavior varies widely by country. Recent data show that people in the United States and United Kingdom save around 15 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Those in Switzerland and Japan save twice as much. Why do countries with similar economies have significantly different savings rates?

Keith Chen, a behavioral economist and UCLA professor, has an interesting theory. He suggests that one’s language is linked to how one plans for the future. How a language speaks about time – the future and the past – leads to visceral changes in the speaker. English, for example, is what Chen calls a futured language, while German and Mandarin Chinese are future-less.

In English, we say “it will rain tomorrow” and “it rained yesterday.” A Chinese speaker, on the other hand, might say “it rain tomorrow” and “it rain yesterday.”

“Chinese doesn’t divide up the time spectrum in the same way

[as] English,” Chen explains. The comparison is similar even for closely-related languages like English and German.

A futured language like English, in Chen’s theory, requires one to “disassociate the future from the present every time you speak.” Thus, the future seems more distant, making it harder to save. Conversely, future-less language speakers are more likely to feel that the present and the future are identical.

“That’s going to make it easier to save,” says Chen.

The theory holds for other future-oriented behaviors, as well, according to Chen. Future-less language speakers not only save more, but are also less likely to smoke or be obese.

Chen’s theory was initially met with skepticism by both economists and linguists. His response has been to “push the data” further and further. “No matter how far I push this, I can’t get it to break,” Chen says. As a result, critics have come around and think he may be right.

A greater understanding of behavior, Chen hopes, can help us “be better stewards of our futures.”

Click here to watch Keith Chen’s 12-minute TED Talk video.