Ariana Orvell (left), Social Psychology Graduate Student; Ethan Kross (center), Professor of Psychology; Susan Gelman (right), Heinz Werner University Professor of Psychology and Linguistics

When asked to write about a past negative experience, people are more likely to distance themselves and derive meaning from the experience if tasked with using the generic “you” rather than the first-person pronoun “I.” Read more about how using “you” when thinking about a painful experience from your past could provide comfort in Ms. Orvell, Dr. Kross, and Dr. Gelman’s newly published article, How “you” makes meaning, in Science magazine. Their research has also been recognized by Smithsonian Magazine. We asked Ms. Orvell, Dr. Kross, and Dr. Gelman a little more about their fascinating research. Here’s what they had to say:

1. What questions have you been tackling in your research?

In our research, we are interested in how subtle variations in language can shift a person's perspective on the world.  Recently, we have focused on one of the most common words in the English language, namely, the pronoun 'you'. Although usually 'you' refers to the person being spoken to ("How are you today?"), 'you' can also be used to refer to people in general (e.g., "You win some, you lose some"). A puzzling phenomenon that we noticed is that people often use this type of “you” (which we call "generic you") to talk about their own, personal experiences. For example, Sheryl Sandberg, reflecting on the death of her husband said, “You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning.”  Why did she choose to express this with 'you' instead of 'I'? What function is generic you serving here? How do children learn that ‘you’ has both a specific and a general meaning? Our work has begun to answer these questions. We also want to understand the interpersonal implications of generic-you. How does hearing generic-you affect the listener? Does it increase empathy? Does it make them feel closer to the speaker? These are some of the questions we're currently examining. 

2. What are some of the most important findings from your work?

As our starting point, we predicted that generic you would be used to express norms—general rules or expectations for how things are or should be. To test this idea, we carefully manipulated whether people were prompted to consider norms or preferences about everyday situations (for example, what to do on a rainy day). We found that people were much more likely to use generic-you in response to questions that asked about norms.

We then discovered that people spontaneously use generic you to express norms surrounding deeply personal negative experiences, and that doing so helps them take a step back from their experience and view it as more psychologically distant.

What we find so exciting about this research is how frequently people seem to use generic you when taking about their own experiences. Our experiments provide insight into what generic you signals: it’s used to express norms regarding both everyday and emotional experiences. We have also found that children as young as two years old are able to distinguish between contexts when generic you vs. specific you is appropriate.

3. How can we use this knowledge in our everyday lives?

When you're thinking about a painful experience from your past, you may find some comfort by thinking about general lessons you can learn from your experience, and remembering that you're not alone.