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The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior:

Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets
M. Keith Chen
Yale University, School of Management and Cowles Foundation, December, 2012


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.

Forthcoming, American Economic Review, Vol 103(2)
Editor’s Choice, Science Magazine, Vol 339(4)