The Power of Language to Shape Our Behavior

We’ve known for thousands of years that we become what we repeatedly think. I’m reminded of the ancient proverb, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”

Our thoughts are powerful beyond our wildest imagination. I recently heard a speaker say that people are not overcome by their weaknesses or lack of giftedness but by what they think they lack. That’s so true.

We’ve also known for a long time that our words have the power of life and death. We can build someone up with our words and empower them to live an unbounded life. We can also tear people down and ruin them with our words.

When I speak like that, the effects of my words seem outside of me. However, if I were to ask you, “Who do you think is most impacted by my words?”

The answer is me, it’s not the other person, even though they can be harmed by my words as well.

My words are a reflection of who I am and I am most impacted by the words I speak both to myself and others.

If I start telling myself, “I’m a failure, I’m never going to amount to something. I always lose.” Guess what I am doing? I am talking myself out of fighting the good fight that will bring victory. I am speaking negativity into my heart and I will become discouraged, depressed, stressed, and anxious. My words impact me more than they impact anyone else.

We’ve seen that our thoughts and words impact our lives either negatively or positively.

The Language We Speak can Affect our Actions

Have you ever thought that your national language, such as English, Mandarin, French, etc. can have an impact your actions? Well, research conducted by Yale University behavioral economist, Keith Chen, has shown that language can affect economic behavior in areas such as saving rates, health behaviors, and retirement assets.

In other words, there is a link between the structure of the language you speak and whether you find yourself with the propensity to save or not.

Dr. Chen’s work showed that among the richest countries in the world, members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) there were still significant disparities in savings despite the many similarities these countries shared.

He decided to investigate the differences in the languages they speak. He illustrates the difference by comparing English to Mandarin.

In the English language, one might say:

Past rain, “It rained yesterday.”; current rain, “It is raining now.”; or future rain, “It will rain tomorrow.” Notice that English requires a lot more information with respect to the timing of events. Because of that, one has to separate the past present and future and modify what he is saying. I.e.  “It will rain,” or “It’s going to rain.” It’s absolutely not permissible in English to say, “It rain tomorrow.”

In contrast to English, a Chinese speaker would say something comparable to,  “Yesterday it rain,” “Now it rain,” “Tomorrow it rain.” The Chinese language doesn’t divide up the time in the same way that English forces us to constantly do in order to speak correctly.

As a behavioral scientist, this reality forced Dr. Chen to wonder, Could how your language forces you to think and speak about time, affect your propensity to behave across time? He developed a hypothesis: “If you speak a futured language, like English, that means is that every time you discuss the future, or any kind of a future event, grammatically you’re forced to cleave that from the present and treat it as if it’s something viscerally different. Now suppose that that visceral difference makes you subtly dissociate the future from the present every time you speak. If that’s true and it makes the future feel like something more distant and more different from the present, that’s going to make it harder to save. If, on the other hand, you speak about the present and the future in a futureless language, you speak about them identically. If that subtly nudges you to feel about them identically, that’s going to make it easier to save.

To test his hypothesis, he studied countries and people groups that spoke a futureless language and compared them with countries and people groups that spoke a futured language like English.

After controlling for differences between people with different languages (futureless vs futured) from all over the world, including tribes in Nigeria, his research found that futureless language speakers were 30 percent more likely to report having saved in any given year. By the time they retired, futureless language speakers were going to retire with 25 percent more in savings than futured language speakers, if income was held constant.

Now that’s Huge! Compound that across generations as parents leave inheritances for children and as children of futureless language speakers get raised in more stable conditions having an edge early on in life.

Futureless language speakers were also 20 to 24 percent less likely to be smoking at any given point in time compared to identical families who spoke futured languages. They were 13 to 17 percent less likely to be obese by the time they retired, and they’re going to report being 21 percent more likely to have used a condom in their last sexual encounter.

The language we speak affects our behavior. If this is true as this research has shown time and time again, then the implications are profound.



Keith Chen, “The effect of language on economic behavior: Evidence from savings rates, health behaviors, and retirement assets.” The American Economic Review, 2013