You enter the room, spot the glances of your peers and know, that you are about to overcome your greatest weaknesses.
What does this line mean to you? Did you feel present? Empowered? Fearful? Some sort of emotional reaction would seem likely given the gravity of these words. But, intriguingly, it might not be the most obvious words in this sentence that drive your emotional reaction. Reading something like “overcome” or “greatest weaknesses” can certainly prompt strong feelings but this might be particularly the case thanks to the personal pronoun “you.” Based on fascinating research by Tad Brunyé and colleagues, It seems that reading something in the second person (using “you” as the pronoun) can elicit stronger reactions compared to reading an identical text using the first-person (i.e. “I”) (Brunyé et al., 2011).
When we read a story, we don’t simply come to understand the information contained within the piece. Reading a story also involves imagining the events described and implied. In effect, we build a model in our minds of what’s going on in the story, known as a “situation model.” Situation models represent a wide range of information from the story, including how things look, smell, and feel, along with the emotions and actions of characters. It is these models that prompt us to embody the narrative, or feel as if we are a part of them, and all of this can be enhanced by the pronouns used. It has been shown that using the second-person (i.e. “you”) is more effective at having readers see things from a character’s perspective; compared to the first-person (i.e., “I”) or third-person (i.e., “he”).
In a recent study, it was suggested that readers develop more in-depth situation models when they put themselves in the shoes of the characters in the story (Brunyé et al., 2011). This theory was tested by observing how readers represent events that either use “you” or “I” when describing the protagonist. In the experiment, each of the 48 native English-speaking undergraduates from Tufts University were told to read 8 passages, 4 of which used “you” as a pronoun and 4 of which used “I” as a pronoun. How well people understood each passage was measured by having people respond as quickly as possible to some yes-or-no comprehension questions. Importantly, arriving at the correct answer required participants to make some inferences regarding what was represented by the text, rather than simply remembering the text itself. In addition, before and after each passage read, emotions were measured.
What the researchers found was that when “you” appeared in the passages, readers answered the comprehension questions more accurately and more quickly, compared to when they read the passages using “I.” This result was true only for information about the space described in the story (e.g. was the desk at the corner of the room?). Reading passages that employed “you” as the pronoun also resulted in greater shifts in emotion as a result of reading the passage, relative to the “I” passages. In other words, using the second-person (i.e., “you”) led readers to experience more profound emotions.
It appears that stories that use the second-person may produce more emotional experiences in readers. But, why is this? The researchers suggest that reading about “you” can prompt readers to place themselves in the shoes of the characters they read, therefore thinking of themselves as being in the situation described and as a result, feel these emotions more profoundly.
These findings might be useful for writers looking for a leg up in producing an emotional reaction in readers. Helping readers to feel a part of the story and see things from a character’s perspective, such as using “you” instead of “I,” will certainly help!
Posted by Michelle Vinitsky
Brunyé, T. T., Ditman, T., Mahoney, C. R., Augustyn, J. S., & Taylor, H. A. (2009). When you and I
share perspectives: Pronouns modulate perspective-taking during narrative comprehension. Psychological Science, 20, 27-32.
Brunyé, T. T., Ditman, T., Mahoney, C. R., Taylor, H. A. (2011). Better you than I: Perspectives and
emotion simulation during narrative comprehension. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 23, 659-666.