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Future tense and economic decisions: Controlling for cultural evolution

Roberts, S. G., Winters, J., & Chen, K. (2015). Future tense and economic decisions: Controlling for cultural evolution. PLoS One, 10(7): e0132145. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0132145.
A previous study by Chen demonstrates a correlation between languages that grammatically mark future events and their speakers' propensity to save, even after controlling for numerous economic and demographic factors. The implication is that languages which grammatically distinguish the present and the future may bias their speakers to distinguish them psychologically, leading to less future-oriented decision making. However, Chen's original analysis assumed languages are independent. This neglects the fact that languages are related, causing correlations to appear stronger than is warranted (Galton's problem). In this paper, we test the robustness of Chen's correlations to corrections for the geographic and historical relatedness of languages. While the question seems simple, the answer is complex. In general, the statistical correlation between the two variables is weaker when controlling for relatedness. When applying the strictest tests for relatedness, and when data is not aggregated across individuals, the correlation is not significant. However, the correlation did remain reasonably robust under a number of tests. We argue that any claims of synchronic patterns between cultural variables should be tested for spurious correlations, with the kinds of approaches used in this paper. However, experiments or case-studies would be more fruitful avenues for future research on this specific topic, rather than further large-scale cross-cultural correlational studies.
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