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How Language Helps Us Cope with Negative Experiences

How Language Helps Us Cope with Negative Experiences

A new study demonstrates how people use the word “you” rather than “I” to help them cope with negative experiences or share an insight.

For the study, researchers from the University of Michigan conducted nine experiments with 2,489 people to understand why people use “you” not only to refer to specific others, but also to reflect on their own experiences.

“It’s something we all do as a way to explain how things work and to find meaning in our lives,” said Ariana Orvell, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology and the study’s lead author. “When people use ‘you’ to make meaning from negative experiences, it allows them to normalize the experience and reflect on it from a distance.”

For example, “you win some, you lose some” would indicate that a person has failed in a situation, but by using the word “you,” they are able to communicate that this could happen to anyone, the researcher explained.

“Or saying that ‘when you are angry, you say and do things that you will most likely regret’ might actually explain a personal situation, but the individual attempts to make it something many people relate to,” Orvell said.

In one experiment, researchers asked participants to write about a personal experience: 201 were asked to make meaning from a negative event, 198 were asked to relive a negative event, and 203 were simply asked to write about a neutral experience.

Those in the meaning-making group used generic you more in their essays (46 percent used the word at least once) than those in the relive group (10 percent used the word at least once) and the neutral group (three percent used the word at least once).

The researchers also found that using generic you led people to view the event as more distant.

The researchers acknowledge that it may seem contradictory that a means of generalizing people at large is used when reflecting on one’s most personal and idiosyncratic experiences.

“We suspect that it’s the ability to move beyond your own perspective to express shared, universal experiences that allows individuals to derive broader meanings from personal events,” Orvell said.

The study was published in Science.

Source:  University of Michigan

How Language Helps Us Cope with Negative Experiences

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). How Language Helps Us Cope with Negative Experiences. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 26 Mar 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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