In literature, writers often use the word “you” generically to make an idea seem more universal, even though it might not be.

Now, in a paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of Michigan researchers show that this linguistic device—the use of the generic-you—has a hand in making ideas resonate.

Previously, researchers have found that resonance can be heightened by altering a message’s content, either to evoke emotion, highlight its applicability to a person’s life, or appeal to a person’s beliefs. While reading a novel on her Kindle, U-M 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.

“This was so exciting to us because we had long had the intuition that generic-you might have interpersonal effects. It might pull the listener or addressee into an idea and maybe increase empathy or the extent to which a person could relate with an idea that someone else was expressing,” said Orvell, the lead author on the paper. “Finding these passages in books was a perfect real-world way to get some insight into this effect.”

Gelman and her co-authors Ariana Orvell of Bryn Mawr College and Ethan Kross, U-M 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.

Read the full article at Michigan News.