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How language helps people cope with negative experiences

March 23, 2017

A new study demonstrates how people use the word "you" in a general sense to distance themselves psychologically -- and extract meaning -- from negative experiences. The word "you" is often used to address someone directly (e.g., "How are you?"), but it can also be used to make timeless statements about people in general (e.g., "You win some, you lose some."). Ariana Orvell et al. sought to explore the use of "you" in greater detail. In three initial experiments, they asked participants "you" questions that were slightly differently worded in each case, and that sought an understanding of how people complete a task. Participants in the general condition were asked, "What should you do with hammers?" and participants in the personal condition were asked, "What do you like to do with hammers?" People used a generic "You do this or that," more in the first case, the researchers reported, establishing that people use generic "you" more when talking about norms than about personal preferences. The researchers then randomly assigned participants to either write about a personal negative experience or a neutral experience. Whereas only 6% of the neutral group used generic "you," 56% of participants in the negative group used it. Next, two groups of participants were asked either to write about a personal negative experience and then write about what lessons they could learn from it -- or to simply write about their experiences; the former group was significantly more likely to use generic "you," a method to distance themselves from the negative experience, the researchers suggest. Finally, when participants were asked to write about their negative experiences using either generic "you" or "I," the former group reported significantly more psychological distance from the event than those in the "I" condition.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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