Thinking in the Present Tense. Just do it.

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Keith Chen’s TED talk how your future is shaped by how you talk about it

Does your first language have a future tense? If so, bad news to report. You’re likely to save less, smoke more, and become overweight. The details are in a TED talk by behavioral economist Keith Chen that my friend Janet emailed me.

Chen’s hypothesis is that people whose languages don’t separate the future from the present tend to plan ahead better because they perceive future time vividly as a continuation of the present, not as a separate, distant thing. The idea is that if I can tell myself: “I will quit smoking tomorrow”, I’m able to assign quitting to the cozy abstraction of a mañana that’s always just over the next horizon.

Chen believes that if, as in Japanese, for example, your only grammatical choice is “Tomorrow I quit”, you’re more likely to perceive tomorrow as connected to today and, therefore, just get on with it. Or, in the words of the great American philosopher Janis Joplin: “It’s all the same f****** day, man”.

Where does English score? We’ve got a future tense, of course, but we also often speak about the future (“I will quit”) using a present progressive form (“I’m going to quit”) and, to be particularly evocative, we can say “tomorrow I quit”. That puts us in the middle. Interestingly, Chen separates UK and US English, putting the UK more towards the future-using end of the scale and the US towards the present-using scale. Some of the languages at the end of the futureless scale are Chinese, Japanese, German, and Dutch.

So Chen’s Nike-esque advice to people who want to make a change in life? Don’t say “I will do it.” Just say “I do it.”


6 thoughts on “Thinking in the Present Tense. Just do it.

  1. Hmm, interesting idea. However, I question the assumption that the idiomatic expressions of time in a language’s grammar automatically dictate the way its speakers perceive the passage of time in reality – and, even if they did, whether this would actually translate into measurable behaviors across a whole language-speaking population. (By the way, isn’t smoking still far more common in Japan than in North America?)

    To further your good observations on the topic of English, I will point out that we often use outright present tense to indicate future activity: for example, “Tomorrow I have a doctor’s appointment” or “Next month I am flying to Las Vegas.” Also, to further complicate the picture, the use of the future tense “will” or “shall” in English is sometimes not so much about temporal expression but bossy emphasis. Compare “Tomorrow you clean up your room” with “Tomorrow you WILL clean up your room” (i.e., or else).

    • I think this is a version of the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” that suggests that how you think is affected by the language you think in. I don’t know if Sapir-Whorf came before or after Orwell, but it’s the idea that if you don’t have a word for “freedom”, you can’t want it. I think the jury is still out on Sapir-Whorf.

      Your second paragraph makes me think of an old British joke about an American who falls off a bridge and into the Thames. Not understanding the correct way to use “shall” and “will”, he shouts out: “I can’t swim, and I will drown!” The phlegmatic Londoners, assuming then that he INTENDS to die, walk away and let him get on with it.

      • Ha. Yes, the prescriptive distinction between “shall” and “will” as a mere future auxiliary has often been more honored in the breach than the observance. It dates from only about the middle of the 17th century. In our time, the usage has probably returned to the indifference of Middle English, which used the two interchangeably without any fuss. Going further back, the OED interestingly reports that “in Old English the notion of the future tense was ordinarily expressed by the present tense.” That verb-tense simplicity is surprising, given that in nouns and adjectives Old English wielded a full arsenal of five grammatical cases.

      • It’s very surprising. And there was no real need to make up a future tense separate from the present or to split the one “A Dane slew my chicken” into a menu of a) slew, b) has slain, and c) had slain. The chicken’s dead, and aspect won’t bring it back.

        I think, however, the Anglo-Saxons got Latin educations and developed grammar envy. If Latin had a pluperfect, they wanted one too.

  2. The speaker’s assumption is amusing. Similar assumptions could possibly also be made with the consumption of chocolate: countries that consume more chocolate vs countries that consume less chocolate.

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