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The effects of language on patience: an experimental replication study of the linguistic-savings hypothesis in Austria


The famous linguistic-savings hypothesis states that languages that grammatically separate the future from the present (like English) causally induce less future-oriented behavior than languages in which speakers can refer to the future using present tense (like German or Chinese). Chen et al., European Economic Review 120 (2019) experimentally investigate the effect of using future-oriented language on incentivized intertemporal choices and find no support for the hypothesis. We replicate Chen et al., European Economic Review 120 (2019)’s study in the German-speaking context. In our experiment with 332 subjects, we randomly refer to future payments using present or future tense and find no causal effect of language on intertemporal choice. Given the importance of replications for confidence in scientific findings, our results provide corroborating evidence that the linguistic-savings hypothesis is not empirically tenable. Eventually, the results provide a methodological contribution to the conduct of experiments.

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  1. See Chen (2013) for the classification of languages into s-FTR and w-FTR.

  2. The notion that language structure can affect thought and behavior is commonly called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Whorf 1956). While it has waxed and waned, there is plenty of evidence that language can have an impact on thoughts and behavior. See, e.g., Boroditsky (2001) on the (horizontal or vertical) conceptions of time of Mandarin and English speakers, Winawer et al. (2007) on color discrimination, Danziger and Ward (2010) on associations between ethnic groups, Costa et al. (2014) on moral judgement and behavior and foreign vs. native languages or Bernhofer et al. (2021) on attitudes towards uncertainty and risky behavior.

  3. A related strand of research investigates the ancestral roots of time preferences and language structure. Exploiting a natural experiment associated with the historic expansion of land productivity, Galor and Özak (2016) show that geographical variation in land productivity is associated with long-term orientation today. Closer to our study, Galor et al. (2017) provide supporting empirical evidence that higher pre-industrial crop yields may have led to increased use of periphrastic future tense (similar to w-FTR). Furthermore, they conduct country-level regressions of different measures of today’s societies’ long-term orientation on (i) the share of speakers of languages with periphrastic future tense use, and (ii) pre-industrial crop return. They find positive coefficients on both variables, though the magnitude and significance of the coefficient on periphrastic future tense varies across specifications.

  4. Of course, the policy implications of these two possible explanations are very different: If the former is true, policy-makers could aim to increase patience in individuals through deliberate language use (i.e. using present tense when asking for important decisions whenever possible), and thus rake in the societal benefits of patient behavior which have been well documented in previous research (e.g., Castillo et al., 2011; Golsteyn et al., 2014; Mischel et al., 1989; Moffitt et al., 2011; Sutter et al., 2013). Such strategies are, of course, unwarranted if the latter explanation is true.

  5. See the Online Supplement for the experimental instructions.

  6. Levitt and List (2009) discuss three levels at which replication can operate. The first one concerns reanalyzing the original data, the second one represents the conduction of an experiment with new subjects but using a similar protocol as the original experiment and the third one is characterized by a new research design which tests the same hypothesis as the first study. We argue that in the latter case a successful replication of the original results gives the strongest signal for a robust outcome. See, e.g., Maniadis et al. (2014) and Maniadis and Tufano (2017) for discussions on the importance of replications for the advancement of science.

  7. Note that German serves as a perfect example for an unambiguously w-FTR language according to Chen (2013). Also, German is the most frequently spoken w-FTR language in Western societies and the third most frequently spoken w-FTR language in the world after Mandarin-Chinese and Indonesian (see the 2020 list of the top 200 most spoken languages of The Ethnologue 200, SIL International, 2020).

  8. Inconsistent choice patterns arise if subjects switch more than once along the list. In our sample, only 1 subject chose inconsistently. When excluding this subject from the analysis all the results remain unchanged.

  9. When restricting the sample to those who speak German as the only mother language the importance of thrift to oneself is no longer significant (see Table S4 in the Online Supplement).

  10. One other possible explanation of our null result might be that German speakers are simply used to using both present and future tense when referring to the future, and are, therefore, immune to our treatment variation. Interestingly, using online weather forecasts, Chen (2013) classifies German as a language that mostly uses the present when referring to future events, suggesting that exposure to both forms of future-time reference is not more common in German than in other w-FTR languages. We consider applying our experimental design to languages with varying frequency of present versus future-tense usage an interesting avenue for future research.


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We thank Dirk Engelmann, Maria Bigoni and two referees for very helpful comments. We are also grateful to Ayse Yilmaz, Esra Gkcee and Fati Öztürk for excellent research assistance. Financial support from the Government of the autonomous province South Tyrol through Grant 315/40.3 is gratefully acknowledged.


This study was funded by Government of the autonomous province South Tyrol Grant 315/40.3.

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Correspondence to Silvia Angerer.

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Angerer, S., Glätzle-Rützler, D., Lergetporer, P. et al. The effects of language on patience: an experimental replication study of the linguistic-savings hypothesis in Austria. J Econ Sci Assoc 7, 88–97 (2021).

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  • Intertemporal choice
  • Language
  • Experiment

JEL Classification

  • C91
  • D03
  • D90