The Persuasive Power of “You”
Imagine that you just arrived in a foreign country. The first thing you do is sit down at a café and order a coffee. When it comes time to pay the bill, however, you’re unsure of the right way to pay. Do you ask the waiter for the check? Wait for him to bring it to you? Or are you supposed to go up to the cashier?
Turning to two people at the next table, you ask: “How do you pay the bill around here?”
One person replies, “I go to the cashier and ask for the bill.”
The other says, “You ask the waiter for the bill.”
Whose response would you have more confidence in?
As you may have noticed, the two speakers used different pronouns in their replies. One used the first-person pronoun “I;” the other used the second-person pronoun “you”—not to refer to you personally but rather to refer to people in general (known as “generic-you”). Though it may seem unlikely, across a series of experiments, my co-authors and I found that this subtle shift in language has genuine persuasive force, affecting people’s judgments of the right way to do things.
Norms tell us what behaviors are common, appropriate, or valued in a given context. People are extremely sensitive to norms and often conform to the behaviors of the people around them, especially when they are unsure of what to do. Although people learn norms in many ways, my collaborators and I were interested in whether a subtle linguistic cue such as generic-you could transmit norms indirectly.
We tested this idea across five experiments with 800 adult participants. In all of our studies, people were told to imagine that they were visiting a distant planet where people did things very differently than they do on Earth, which ensured that participants were unfamiliar with the norms about how to behave and needed to figure them out. Participants then read several scenarios in which behaviors were expressed either with first-person pronouns, such as “I” or “me,” or with generic-you. We also took care to ensure that the “you” would be interpreted as referring to people in general rather than to the participant. (Fortunately, most people do interpret “you” in this context as generic). After reading each scenario, participants rated the extent to which the behavior that was described reflected the right way to do things on the foreign planet.
Across all of our experiments, participants judged behaviors that were expressed with the generic-you to reflect the correct way to do things more than behaviors expressed using either first-person pronouns, such as “I,” or third-person singular pronouns, such as “he” or “she”. These differences between the effects of generic-you and other pronouns occurred even when participants were told that all of the people in the foreign land were highly knowledgeable about the norms. This finding suggests that the generic-you may increase people’s confidence in what the norms are even when they have no reason to doubt the reliability of information expressed from a first-person perspective.
Two takeaways stand out to us from this research.
First, generic-you goes beyond its literal meaning (“people in general”) to suggest a call to action indicating what a person should do, as when hearing “You ask the waiter for the bill” leads us to ask the waiter. We refer to this powerful yet implicit message as normative force. Second, it is notable that people were swayed more by the generic usage of “you” than by personal endorsements (which use “I” language), given that personal endorsements are also a powerful route to persuasion.
These findings also raise several interesting questions for future research. One question involves the degree to which this process operates outside of people’s conscious awareness. When we asked participants what they were thinking as they rated whether the behaviors reflected the right way to do things, most participants did not mention relying on the pronouns “I” or “you” to make their judgments. Instead they said they “went with their gut” or “focused on what seemed plausible.” Future research should examine the extent to which these linguistic cues operate without people thinking consciously about them.
We’d also like to know whether these effects generalize to different languages and cultures. Every language has a way to refer to people in general, but how they do so varies. Perhaps in countries where social norms tightly dictate behavior, people may be even more sensitive to linguistic cues that refer to people in general.
Finally, an important question for future research is whether generic-you also has persuasive force in other domains. For example, could generic-you influence people’s judgments, attitudes, and even behavior when it comes to health behaviors, civic engagement, or sustainability practices? And might subtle linguistic cues that express norms, such as generic-you, provide a more effective way to persuade people compared to more explicit interventions that can, at times, backfire? We look forward to research that examines these questions.
For Further Reading
Orvell, A., Kross, E., & Gelman, S. A. (2019). “You” and “I” in a foreign land: The persuasive force of generic-you. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 85, 103869.
Ariana Orvell is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan working with Ethan Kross and Susan Gelman. She will become an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Bryn Mawr College in the fall.