Now I am no Einstein. Lord knows I can’t explain the theory of relativity, let alone give the mathematical proof for the relativity of time. Yet, today, I will prove that time is indeed relative, but with a caveat. My proof is outside of Einstein’s world of physics, and into the world of human experience.
We experience two worlds. One is the world of what is -- the material world where physics and mathematics reside. The other is the world of action -- what we do and how we choose to behave in the material world. This is the world where values reside. Values animate and give impetus to our actions, and underlie the choices we make. Unlike the material world, there are no mathematical formulations to predict human behavior. Human behavior is not mechanical or logical. There is always an emotional component (values) that sway our choices. We do not look to science and mathematics for our values. Values are formulated and transmitted through language, stories, and myths.
It is in the action world, the world of values, where the perception of time gets interesting. There is a fascinating study by a behavioral economist, Keith Chen, on the influence of language in financial planning.
Unlike English, there are languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, which lack verb tenses to distinguish between the present and the future. In Chinese it is not the verb but the context of the conversation, among other markers, which distinguishes time periods
Chen wondered if this linguistic difference influences people’s time perception sufficiently to influence retirement savings. He hypothesized that people speaking languages that have no verbal distinction between the present and the future will experience the future as closer to the present, thereby creating impetus to save for the future. On the flip side, languages which verbally distinguish between the present and the future make the future harder to relate to, and, hence, plan for.
That is exactly what Chen found when he compared the savings rate between people who spoke languages with or without a future tense. People who speak languages with a separate future tense -- English, Arabic, Greek, the Romance languages – are far worse at saving money than people whose languages don’t distinguish between the present and the future – Chinese, German, Japanese, and Norwegian.
After factoring in people’s education levels, income levels, and religious preferences, Chen found that people speaking languages with present and future verbs were 30 percent less likely to save money in any given year.
As crazy as this sounds, Chen replicated this finding in a clever real world experiment. New hires at a company were required to fill out a form which included providing the percentage of their salary they would devote to a retirement plan. One form had their current picture affixed to the top corner of the form, while another had the current picture affixed to one corner and a computer aged photo of themselves affixed to the opposite corner. Yup, having a current and older picture to view increased the percentage of retirement savings significantly.
All of this discussion is prelude to the meat of what I want to discuss – how the underpinnings of secular and religious views influence time perception, world views, and policy prescriptions.
Until next time