More on the alleged correlation between “future tense” and “future-oriented behavior”

Oct 19, 2014 by

[Many thanks to Vitaliy Rayz for a helpful discussion!]

In a study conducted a couple of years ago, Yale economist Keith Chen claims that there is a correlation, and even a causation relation, between the availability of “future tense” and what he calls “future-oriented behavior”. The notion of future-oriented behavior includes financial decisions such as saving money instead of spending it and health-related parameters that can be summarized as “healthy life style”, including exercising, abstaining from smoking, condom use, and long-run health.* According to Chen’s paper, “languages that grammatically associate the future and the present, foster future-oriented behavior”, where “associate the future and the present” means that present tense forms can be used to describe future situations. He calls this linguistic property “weak-FTR” (“FTR” stands for “future tense reference”). The converse situation, where a language requires the use of a dedicated future tense form whenever a future situation is described, is called “strong FTR”.


On the one side of the spectrum, Chen places Norwegians, Finns, Koreans, and the Chinese, whose languages exhibit weak-FTR and who apparently exhibit significant future-oriented behavior, both financial and health-related. On the other end of the spectrum, we find the Americans (all as one English-speaking in Chen’s model, itself a highly questionable assumption), the Greeks, the Portuguese, and the Hebrew-speaking Israelis. Strangely enough, the Russians and the Poles find themselves at the opposites ends of the divide although their use of future tense is highly similar. In fact, it is pretty clear that the Russian language has been misidentified by Chen as a “strong-FTR” language, as discussed in my earlier post and in John McWhorter’s response to Chen’s study. Instead, it is perfectly okay to say in Russian Ja ne mogu uvidet’sja s toboj zavtra, potomu čto ja idu na seminar which literally means ‘I can’t see you tomorrow because I go to a seminar’ and uses a present tense form of the verb ‘to go’—a hallmark of a “weak-FTR” language. The reclassification of Russian as a “weak-FTR” language does not help Chen’s case, however, because—as I show below—his placement of the Russian Federation at the “much future-oriented behavior” side is highly problematic as well.

Before addressing that issue, let me point out that equating the population of the Russian Federation with (ethnic) Russians or speakers of Russian is also a grave mistake. Approximately one in five citizens of Russia is a non-Russian. According to the 2010 census data, of the 145 million people living in Russia, 12.7 million are members of the five largest ethnic minorities: Tatars (5.6 million), Ukrainians (2.9 million), Bashkirs (1.7 million), Chechens (1.4 million), and Armenians (1.1 million). Dagestani ethnic groups constitute another 2.9 million. Of them, 13.6 million people speak one of the 35 ethnic languages: Tatar, Ukrainian, Bashkir, Chechen, Armenian, and the 30 distinct languages of Dagestan. There are also 70 additional languages still spoken in the Russian Federation, according to the Ethnologue.



Yet, even if the problem of multilingual states is set aside, the classification of the Russians as the people who exhibit significant future-oriented behavior boggles the mind. I will not comment on Chen’s financial data or Russia’s ecological problems (see here and here), but note that Russia’s “bill of health” is quite poor, as I discussed in an earlier post, prompted by the discussions of the Sochi Olympics as a festival of beauty and health. In that post, I stressed that Russia could spend $51 billion on other areas where investments would pay off much better for the Russians’ health in the long run. Dismal figures for life expectancy, especially for men, poor state of maternal health, and the appalling conditions at too many Russian hospitals do not depict Russia as a country investing in the future health of its citizens. Individual attitudes towards the idea of healthy lifestyle are rather negative as well. Russians joke that “those who don’t smoke and don’t drink will die healthy”, a proverb typically used to justify smoking and drinking. But there is a grain of truth to the joke: statistically, Russians smoke and drink heavily, and all too many Russians die of “preventable environmental causes” rather than from “old age diseases”. Looking at the distribution of deaths due to cardio-vascular diseases (stroke and coronary heart disease), alchohol abuse, and injuries, it is hard to justify Chen’s classification of Russians as exhibiting more concern for their future wellbeing than Americans do. I refer the reader to the three posts linked this paragraph for detailed data, sources, and maps.


Another factor that Chen takes to be a sign of “future-oriented behavior” is condom use. Although I do not have direct statistics on this issue, the high rate of abortion in Russia speaks for itself: abortion rather than condoms is still the contraception of choice for many Russians. Interestingly, a recent paper by one of our readers, demographer Boris Denisov, and his colleagues Victoria I. Sakevich and Aiva Jasilioniene, published in PLoS ONE, shows that “the last decade witnessed growing differences in abortion dynamics in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine despite demographic, social, and historical similarities of these nations”. Specifically, Russia exhibits substantially higher abortion rates compared to Belarus and Ukraine, whose figures are comparable to those of the United States, England and Wales, Sweden, and France. The reasons for this gap in abortion rates is discussed in more detailed in an earlier post.

All in all, when it comes to the characterization of Russians as exhibiting significant future-oriented behavior, I have just one word for Chen: avos’. This word aptly summarizes the attitude of the Russians towards their future. Wiktionary defines this particle as “may still; might yet; possibly”; it can also be used a noun (a rare honor for a grammatical particle!) meaning “blind trust in divine providence; blind faith in sheer luck; blind trust in sheer luck; counting on a miracle” and “faith in serendipity”. It is also described as a quintessential Russian characteristic, with russkij avos ‘Russian avos’’ being said about the alleged unconcern of Russians about the future and their tendency to rely on luck. Wikipedia even has a separate article about this concept, which is defined as “a philosophy of behavior, or attitude of a person who ignores possible problems or hassles and, at the same time, expects or hopes for no negative results or consequences”. According to the Wikipedia,

“”avos” means “hit or miss”, “hope against hope”, or “something done under risk and in the hope for good result in the end”. The avos’ attitude is believed by many to be intrinsic to Russian character, just as is the notion of “sud’ba” (судьба) which roughly translates, depending on the context, as “destiny,” “convocation,” “fate,” or “fatum.””

Just how important the concept of avos’ is in the Russian culture can be seen from references to it in the works of such great Russian authors as Ivan Goncharov and Alexander Pushkin, and from the use of the root avos’ in the derivation of avos’ka, which the Wikipedia article explains as ‘perhaps-bag, a type of shopping bag widespread in the former Soviet Union in the form of a netted sack’. Clearly, a people whose lives revolve around the ideas of “hit or miss” and “blind trust in sheer luck” are not the kind of folks who would spend much time and energy worrying about their future—financial, health-related, or otherwise.



*One might note that the correlation between financial future-oriented behavior and healthy lifestyle phenomena is in itself an open empirical issue.

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