Language shapes our thoughts? Who cares?

Despite being regular humans with the same eyeballs as the rest of us, did you know that if a language has words that finely differentiate shades of blue and green, the speakers of that language are better able to distinguish colours in the blue-green range?

This is just one of the Five examples of how the languages we speak can affect the way we think, which showed up in my social media courtesy of the TED blog.

This blog seems to show language shapes us. It is interesting, but I think what it implies about behaviour rests on bad assumptions that are closely tied to TED culture, so I would like to bring them into the sunshine.

The centrepiece of the blog is a proposition from behavioural economist Keith Chen, who has analyzed reams of data and found that people who speak a language that separates the future from the present, like English, save less money. People who speak a language that is futureless, like Chinese, save more money.

Chen wrote his own post on the TED blog, where he supplies more detail, gives links to a blog called Language Log, and links to no less than four other people who discuss why they think his conclusions are off-base. He also wrote a guest post on Language Log to expand the conversation. I found all the posts to be concise, interesting, and refreshingly civil and supportive of advancing research. I would encourage you to read them if you like to geek out on this sort of thing.


So, the Five Examples show us how language can shape us. But as interesting as this research is, the question isn’t whether people who speak different languages think differently, or even have different skills, or even sometimes behave differently. TED doesn’t put things up just because they are interesting, TED wants to change the world.

I think the implication is if we choose our words carefully, we can change behaviour. If only we share TED’s Ideas Worth Spreading then, at last, everyone would stop being so dumb and do what I want them to do.

The question is can we say something in a way that changes people’s behaviour en masse. We can’t reverse engineer a language, to make English futureless like Chinese. This isn’t about differentiating between shades of blue and green, this is about real-world propositions—can we word something in a way that changes how populations recycle, shop, or drive?


The belief—the Myth—of behaviour is that what we think is what we do. If only we could find the right words we could change people’s thoughts. If only we gave people the right information they would act differently. If only we could raise their awareness and make them Wake Up.

Sadly, thinking controls almost none of our behaviour. Most of our behaviour is determined by the physical and social system we are in. How your house is constructed is far more important to your heating bill than your behaviour. How your city is designed impacts how you drive far more than your thoughts about climate chaos.

Now, the system still allows us some choice, but within those parameters our social group makes most of our decisions for us. This isn’t a bad thing. It is pretty obvious we don’t have the time or energy to analyze everything—we need to save our thinking for important things, so we outsource thinking to our social group. This ability to outsource thinking and choice has allowed humanity to accomplish all it has; without it, we wouldn’t even be hunter-gatherers.

When you ignore these facts and focus on language, thoughts, beliefs, and values, you are choosing to continue blaming the victim, not the system. And this is why I disagree with the implications of this post. Sure, language may be able to shape our thoughts. So what? Our thoughts have very little impact on our behaviour.

What has a huge impact is systems. We must build supportive systems, what I call Compassionate Systems, instead of soothing ourselves with the old myths of behaviour.



  1. Brilliant. What a time we are in. The need to tear down old systems and build new ones while trying to live. It’s so immense. And I think that shifts in language can help us re-imagine and re-design those systems.

  2. In general I agree! But I would not say that language is the victim, rather I would include it in the system, which also comprises built and social structure, and behavior. And though the *language-> behavior* might be weak, the *language -> built and social structure* (which then -> behavior), it seems to me, is also strong. But then it is more a matter of finding the most relevant entry points into the system, rather than the ‘real’ source of behavior. And then, yes, it seems that the built (and social?) structure is the most easily accessible and probably also the most effective entry point…

    • Thanks for reading Juliette.

      I think you have hit on my biggest hope for language. I am actually a giant fan of cognitive framing and good communications, but I think we need to use it surgically. So, we need to frame issues well, and deliver them to the smallest possible audience that will get the job done.

      Right now we tend to have a one-size-fits-all campaign strategy. So, we do a mass campaign about some issue, and tell people to write their politicians, who will then pass a law that will then be implemented by the beuraucracy, which will then be adopted, we hope, by the public.

      But I like to tell about Dave, who used to work for the City of Vancouver, developing the green building code. So, rather than trying to “convince” people they should turn down their thermostat, how about you just convince Dave to change the building code? That has an infinitely higher chance of success.

      Now, of course there are other pressures facing Dave. But I think we agree that when it is necessary we should use language to change the system, and let the system change behaviour at scale.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *