By Donald Lien, Ph.D., and Shuo Zhang
Different languages encode different aspects of reality and modulate people’s perceptions and behaviors in various ways. Researchers believe that languages have an impact on the speakers’ cognition and influence their socio-economic choices and decision-making in social interactions. In a recent paper, we highlight one of the most important linguistic features – Future Time Reference (FTR). FTR impacts speakers’ behaviors involving intertemporal considerations, even the most critical decision on life – suicide.
Future Time Reference and Economic Behaviors
FTR describes the obligatory use in (main clause) prediction-based contexts in spoken or written languages. For instance, English uses “will” or “shall” between the subject and the verb when referencing a future event. However, not all languages have markers for future tense in grammar. In Chinese and German, there is no dedicated marker for future events. Consequently, Chinese and German are classified as weak FTR languages, while English and French are categorized as strong FTR languages.
As noted by plenty of linguistic literatures, the way people speak has an impact on the way people think. FTR can affect a range of future-oriented economic behaviors of its speakers. When people talk about the future with a weak FTR language, the lack of markers for future tense will obscure time distinctions, shortening the distance between present and future. Thus, speakers tend to put more weight on the future in intertemporal choices, which fosters more forward-looking behavior such as more saving, less smoking, more investment in R&D, and more willingness to adopt environmental protection measures.
National Suicide Rate and Primary Language
While researchers in psychology and medical science consider suicide to be the most serious consequence of mental disease or other psychiatric disorders, economists frame suicide as a rational decision that requires rational thoughts, cost-benefit calculations and long-run planning. This is similar to other future-oriented economic behaviors and suicide is a decision that can be affected by the existence of FTR in language.
Our empirical results indicate that countries in which the major languages are characterized by low FTR have approximately one more suicide per 100,000 people than similar countries with high FTR languages. When drawing these comparisons, we control for a variety of country characteristics that could explain our results such as economic conditions, demographics, religious composition, and climate conditions. This effect is sizeable since one more suicide per 100,000 people amounts to an 8.18% increase in the average suicide rate of all countries. This effect is equivalent to the impact on the suicide rate when decreasing GDP per capita by $19,400. With regard to gender differentials, we find that the correlation between strong FTR and suicide rate is more pronounced in the female sample, suggesting that females are more sensitive to the implications conveyed by linguistic structure.
Our results beg the question: Why is there such a big gap in the suicide rate between weak and strong FTR countries? According to suicide notes, reduced life quality and unbearable pain are two of the most common reasons to commit suicide. Since the length of life is only valuable inasmuch as it delivers well-being, we argue that people commit suicide when the disutility of future life exceeds a certain level. Those who suffer higher disutility from continuing to live due to worsening illness, unbearable pain, loneliness, depression, and unhappiness, are more likely to commit suicide.
FTR can influence people’s expected disutility through two channels. The first is time-distance based: the presence of a marker for future events isolates and zooms out the disutility that will occur in the future. Individuals speaking languages with an explicit reference to the future are always reminded of the distinction between present and future. As a result, strong FTR language speakers experience less pain than weak FTR speakers, which means fewer suicides among countries with a strong FTR primary language. The other possible reason is associated with the discount factor. The explicit marker for future events tends to make speakers weight the present more than the future, indicating a higher discount rate for strong FTR language speakers. The higher discount rate helps to dull the speakers’ painful feelings about the future, leading to a lower suicide rate amongst high FTR speakers.
Language and Attitude Towards Suicides and Euthanasia
In addition to the relationship between the presence of FTR in a country’s primary language and its national suicide rate, the obligatory and persisting markers for future tense in grammar have an impact on people’s acceptance of suicide and euthanasia. Consistent with the results obtained at the country level, individuals speaking a language with dedicated markers for the future consider suicide a less justifiable behavior than individuals speaking a weak FTR language.
Euthanasia is a more appropriate alternative for our analysis. Medically assisted suicide is always applied to individuals faced with incurable illness and worsening pain, while euthanasia is a more rational choice and conscious decision, which is a better fit in our context. Although the legalization of euthanasia in different areas may shape people’s attitude toward it, we still find that weak FTR speakers are more open-minded to euthanasia than strong FTR speakers, and the magnitude is even larger than the effect on the acceptance of suicide.
Although it is difficult and costly to modify people’s language, it is worth noting that suicide is likely to be a rational behavior and affected by language FTR through the association between the way language encodes time and the forward planning behaviors of its speakers. Individuals can be nudged to alter their perceived distance between the present and future, which may help in the treatment of depression and psychological counselling.