Recent findings, published in the journal Science, provide new insight into the way a simple word – “you” – can help us understand negative experiences and extract meaning from them.
The word “you” is one of the most commonly used in the English language. Its primary use is to address a specific person – for instance, “how are you?” – but it also has a broader meaning.
“You” can be used to talk about people in general; as an example: “You win some, you lose some.” In this case, it is talking about the population at large rather than an individual. This is referred to as the generic-you.
Although the word is common, little study has been carried out to examine why we use the different types of the “you” and how its usage affects our psychology.
A group of researchers – led by Ariana Orvell of the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor – designed a range of experiments to investigate the use of generic-you in more detail; they wanted to get a better understanding of when it is used and what it means for the user. The authors explain their assumptions:
“Here, we suggest that generic-you is a linguistic mechanism that people use to make meaning from human experience – to derive insights that extend beyond the self – and that it does so by expressing norms.”
In the first three experiments, participants were asked “you” questions that were slightly differently worded in each case. The questions surrounded everyday items – for instance, people in the general condition were asked: “What should you do with hammers?” Those in the personal condition were asked: “What do you like to do with hammers?”
In this preliminary round of experiments, the team found that, in the general condition, people more often used the generic-you to discuss general norms than when they were talking about personal preferences. So the generic-you was more likely to make an appearance when asked: “When should you wear a shirt?” than when asked: “When do you like to wear shirts?”
Next, they asked participants to either write about a neutral life experience or a negative life event. They found that only 6 percent of the neutral group used the generic-you, but 56 percent of individuals in the negative group used the generic-you.
In a follow-up experiment, two groups of participants were asked to write about a personal negative experience. Additionally, one of the two groups was asked to write about what they could learn from this negative event.
The latter group, which wrote about lessons they could learn, were found to use the generic-you more frequently. The researchers believe that this is a tool used to distance themselves from the negative experience. By using the generic-you, they are speaking about themselves as a part of society at large.
In the final leg of the study, the researchers specifically asked participants to write about a negative experience using the generic-you or “I.” The group using the generic-you reported feeling more psychological distance from those asked to use “I.”
The researchers conclude that the generic-you “may constitute a central way that people derive meaning from their emotional experiences in daily life.” They also believe that “[t]ogether, these findings demonstrate how language is structured to facilitate the process of making meaning from one’s experiences.”
No doubt, further research will continue to uncover the complexity and emotional importance of this simple, common word.