CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — A study by researchers at University of Michigan (UM) showed that a linguistic device, the use of “you” generically to make an idea seem more universal, has a hand in making ideas resonate.
While reading a novel on her Kindle, UM professor of psychology and linguistics Susan Gelman began to notice many of the passages that other readers had spontaneously highlighted used generic-you, and wondered if this was coincidence or representative of a systematic pattern.
Gelman and her co-authors Ariana Orvell of Bryn Mawr College and Ethan Kross, UM professor of psychology, proceeded to examine how frequently “you” appeared in highlighted passages pulled from 56 Oprah’s Book Club selections. They found that highlighted passages were 8.5 times more likely to contain generic “you” than passages that were not highlighted, leading them to identify generic-you as a linguistic device that enhances resonance.
“This study is a really nice example of how sensitive people are to even a subtle variation in perspective and language,” Gelman said. “I’m sure people who are reading these novels were not thinking about the linguistic device the authors were using, and the authors themselves may not have been aware, but this study shows this linguistic device has a measurable effect, and that it’s part of the fabric of language and thought that people are sensitive to.”
Across four follow-up experiments reported in the same article, the researchers then subjected these findings to four more tests to confirm that the presence of generic-you in text has a causal effect on enhancing how much ideas resonate.
To examine how frequently readers highlighted “you” passages, the researchers analyzed 1,120 passages from 56 books of fiction originally written in English and published after 1900. Collectively, the passages were highlighted more than 250,000 times. The researchers found those that included the generic-you were highlighted much more frequently than non-highlighted control passages.
Specifically, the researchers found that generic-you appeared in 26 percent of highlighted passages compared to just 3 percent of non-highlighted control passages. Forty percent of highlighted passages contained at least one indicator of “generic persons,” that is, the generic use of “people,” compared to just 6 percent of non-highlighted control passages.
“I think it’s remarkable that this tiny linguistic shift influences how much ideas resonate,” said Kross. “These findings speak to how powerful subtle shifts in language can be for influencing the way people make sense of the world.”
In the next step, the researchers will study how generic-you is used in other languages, as well as studying its effects in children and in other uses, such as social media posts.
The study, posted on UM’s website on Thursday, has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.