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Seminar: Whorfian economists need help from linguists, Sean Roberts & Cole Robertson, 24 Aug

Australian National University, Evolution

Date: 1 August 2018

Seminar: Whorfian economists need help from linguists

Speakers: Sean Roberts (Bristol) & Cole Robertson (Oxford)

When: 24 August 2018, 3.30pm

Where: Basham Room, Baldessin Building, ANU


Several decades of experiments have shown how the language we speak can subtly influence our perception.  Recently, however, economists have been using these Whorfian ideas to explore whether our language has an impact on major economic choices.  These include whether the grammar of our language can predict whether we save money, how much we exercise, how big our pension is, whether we choose to vote and the kinds of accounting practices we use.  For example, Chen (2013) predicted that speakers of languages which commonly use the present tense to refer to events in the future might be more likely to be patient and wait for future rewards, and found that indeed they tended to choose to save money than spend money.  However, Roberts, Winters & Chen (2015) re-analysed the data and found that the linguistic analysis was questionable, and the effect was confounded by historical relations between languages.  Various experiments followed, comparing speakers from closely related cultures (Sutter et al, 2015; Pérez and Tavits, 2017).  Following up on this, Cole Robertson's PhD thesis aims to test the hypothesis by looking at variation within populations.  A series of experiments show that people who habitually use the present tense to refer to the future are more likely to exhibit patient behaviour. Crucially, a thorough investigation of the tense system of each language is required before predictions can be made.  In general, linguists have an opportunity to engage economists to improve the studies on this topic, and potentially limit the damage that fledgling policy implications may have.

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