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Can Goofy Headlines Cost You Money?

How could anyone pack three major misunderstandings about a linguistic science story into a single eight-word headline?

On September 15, Rachel Martin interviewed the much-publicized economist Keith Chen on National Public Radio’s news program Weekend Edition Sunday. And the headline chosen for the transcript put up on the NPR Web site was: “The Language You Use Might Save You Money.”

This piles new layers of silliness onto previous facile treatments of a topic that needs to be given careful thought and interpreted with statistical sophistication.

To summarize, Chen’s thesis is not about “the language you use,” and not about saving you money, and not about any language doing something for you.

Let me try to undo some of the damage NPR’s careless headline writer has done.

Chen’s claim has three components. The first is linguistic: He thinks languages can be divided into those that use some obligatory mark of future time reference and those that just use the present tense to refer to the future. (I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.)

The second is a piece of speculative psychology: He believes people with different native languages are subject to subtly different influences on their view of the future, in that if you are a native speaker of a language with obligatory marking of future tense you will be tempted to think that the future is a quite different place from the present, while speaking the other kind of language will tempt you to think of the future as continuous with the present.

The third is a testable hypothesis about the effects of this subtle influencing of your perceptions. He believes the linguistic influence has causal efficacy with regard to nonlinguistic aspects of your life, in that thinking of the future as different from the present will tend to make you save less and expose yourself to more long-term risks (by smoking, drinking, overeating, and so on).

Chen claims the subliminal linguistic promptings, faint and subtle though they may be, are sufficient to have effects that show up in published large-scale societal statistics on personal finance and health.

The NPR headline is therefore a disgrace to the profession of journalism in three separate ways.

  1. The claim is not about the language you use. It’s about your native language, the one associated with your deepest linguistic habits from childhood. Merely switching into German when you talk to your banker will not have the purported beneficial influence on your financial judgment; the influence comes, subconsciously and unbidden, from the language in which you have thought since you were at your mother’s knee (and we have no idea what happens with multilinguals).
  2. The point is not about saving you money, i.e., enabling you to lower your expenditures. It’s about putting money away for a rainy day. The headline writer seems to have paid no attention at all to the difference between saving your money by (for instance) depositing it in a savings account, and saving money by (for instance) purchasing supermarket own-brand foodstuffs and cleaning products. The phrase save you money has only the latter meaning, the irrelevant one.
  3. It is not about the language doing something. The language doesn’t do anything at all. It is you who will save money or not save, puff away on Gauloises or not, etc., as you choose. Your language will not alter your bank balance or light your cigarettes; you do it all yourself. But if Chen is right, you may be prompted subconsciously in your choices by the way you happen to see things, and your linguistic habits may be an influence on that.

I’ve explained elsewhere (here and here and here) why I’m skeptical about Chen’s thesis. But Chen has coherent and thoughtful responses to his critics (here, for example).

I remain a skeptic: I doubt the reality of the causal link. I think our main task now should be to develop a statistically based understanding of the etiology and numerosity of the many peculiar language/culture correlations we find (Mark Liberman discusses the matter in this post, referring to the work of correlation experts Sean Roberts and James Winters).

But Chen’s paper is a serious piece of work, and he deserved better than to be saddled with the utterly stupid headline that NPR chose.

Not that critics or copy editors have doomed his career: Since the splash made by his future-tense paper, Chen has moved (just this past summer) from Yale’s business school to a tenured associate professorship in the Anderson Management School at UCLA. It’s something worth keeping in mind if you talk to journalists about your research (as I did over lunch today): Goofy headlines may be annoying, but they won’t necessarily harm your employment prospects. We should take comfort in that.

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