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”.

Chen_future_diagram

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.

 

smoking_rate_map_GC

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.

abortion_rates_Europe_map

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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  • Östen Dahl

    I am no supporter of Chen’s theory, as you may know, but I think it is not correct that Chen has misidentified Russian, according to his own criteria. The sentence you quote as perfectly okay in Russian is no counterexample to his claim that Russian is a “strong-FTR” language since he explicitly says that the criterial uses are the ones that involve prediction rather than intention or planning. Thus, if you replace the last clause in the example (‘because I go to a seminar’) by “potomu chto (zavtra) idet dozhd'” ‘because it rains (tomorrow)’, wouldn’t that sound rather weird in the present tense? (Question mark since I am not a native speaker.)

    • I am most like to say “zavtra dozhd'” (without “idet” or the future tense “budet”).

  • John Cowan

    Even with the narrowed definition, is English really strong-FTR? “If I walk to London tomorrow, I’ll see the Queen” is a prediction with a present tense (in the conditional clause) that represents the future. Indeed, “If I will walk to London” is probably ungrammatical. In addition, when a future adverb is present, the present tense is fine: “Obama is coming to New York next week”. Note that this is a prediction too, whereas “I am going to New York next week” might be either a prediction or a statement of intention.

    • Östen Dahl

      This illustrates how complex both the data and the conceptual apparatus gets. I would not say that a conditional clause expresses a prediction, although the whole sentence does. At least you cannot say that the speaker has predicted s/he will walk to London. As for the Obama sentence, notice that it is naturally interpreted as containing an element of planning or scheduling; again I am not a native speaker, but I would challenge you to come up with a similar sentence predicting a phenomenon which is not under human control.

      • I am not sure that splitting semantic hairs between prediction and planning works for Chen’s theory either. After all, that gets us into the domain of meanings, not grammatical categories. As far as I can tell, none of the languages he considers use different (complementary) grammatical means to express the two types of futures. So if it’s all about meaning and not grammatical expression, it gets us away from language (as the factor behind “future-oriented behavior”, a concept I have a problem with too, as you can tell from the post).

      • John Cowan

        “Bad weather is coming to New York next week” meets your criterion, though there may be a degree of personification here: certainly “*It rains / is raining in New York next week” wouldn’t do (indeed, the “is raining” version sounds like something from a time-travel story).

        • I am not sure what criterion you are referring to.

          • John Cowan

            A prediction about something beyond human control.

          • Ah! It appears to be *Chen’s* criterion, not mine. I certainly don’t want to rely on judgments about such mushy concepts as what is or isn’t under human control — it depends on how optimistic/pessimistic you want to be, no? 😉

    • As far as I can make out from Chen’s paper (and admittedly, he is not very clear on his definition or on the linguistic phenomena that he allegedly studies), the “going to” future (or the corresponding constructions in Spanish, French, Norwegian, etc.) are not taken to be present but future. Why? You’d have to ask him. Maybe because this way, the facts fit his theory better…

      • Ivan Derzhanski

        Perhaps because it’s used to talk about future events and states and not about present ones?

        • Yes. Which once again brings us into the murky territory of “talking about the future”. What’s then the difference between “going to”, which is used to talk about future events in English (strong FTR) and the plain ol’ present tense used to talk about future events in Norwegian (weak FTR)? None.

          Thanks for the very interesting discussion, by the way!

          • Ivan Derzhanski

            Well, the difference is that the plain ol’ present tense is also used to talk about present states and ongoing events, and `going to’ isn’t. After all, we don’t care what the forms are called and what they look like; what we want to know is whether the (most usual) forms used to talk about the present and the future are the same (as in Chinese or Finnish), or if they are different (as in English or Russian). Of course determining what is `most usual’ may be harder than Keith Chen thinks.

            Thank you!

          • But “going to” is used to talk about movement in the present tense! Like “this discussion is going in the wrong direction” 😉

            But seriously, the form of “is going to”, present progressive is THE form used to talk about things happening now (cf. simple present, which is generally NOT used to describe the “now”).

            And again, they are not different when it comes to Russian. Re-read what I said in the post, I go into a lot of detail there.

          • Ivan Derzhanski

            It can be argued that _is going to Verb_ is different from _is going to Place_, and the fact that _gonna_-contraction is only available for the former (_I’m gonna cry_ vs *_I’m gonna London_) demonstrates that the linguistic processor in our mind is sensitive to the difference. On the other hand, in the uncontracted form it does contain a present progressive form of _go_. So the Chen unit in the brain (the one that’s sitting there figuring if we use the same forms for things happening in the present and in the future) has reasons for classifying them as being the same as well as being different. We don’t know what it does (if it exists at all).

            In Russian I suppose aspect is going to count as well. When talking of the present time, one uses non-past forms of imperfective verbs. When talking of the future, sometimes one does the same thing (_завтра я иду на семинар_), but sometimes one uses forms that aren’t used for the present, to wit, non-past forms of perfective verbs (_я напишу тебе, когда приеду_) or _budet_+infinitives (_я сейчас буду ругаться_). These two `sometimes’ are sending opposite messages to the Chen unit. Which is going to prevail? Does it depend on frequency? On the kind of situations in which one uses these or those forms? Again, we don’t know.

            (Keith Chen, be honest: you thought linguistics was simpler than economics, didn’t you?)

          • Haha, exactly!