The Yale Study That Wasn’t

by , April 3rd



 

Yale Crest

Last week I began research for an article about the most persuasive words in the English language. I’d seen many articles on the topic, and I figured it would be very helpful to our readers to consider these words when designing signs and banners.

To begin my research, I did a Google search and came up with several articles that referred to a, “1970 Yale University study.” When I see a reference like that, the first thing I do is search for the source (I was taught that it’s always better to quote from the source directly). So I went to my university’s online research article database and began looking for the study. Which I couldn’t find. So I went back to Google and read a few more articles. Turns out, there was never a study on the most persuasive words done at Yale. It just doesn’t exist. But it’s been quoted repeatedly since 1970, and is still quoted regularly.

Benjamin Zimmer is a renowned linguist and lexicographer and author of several blog postings on the University of Pennsylvania’s Language Lab blog. In one post, he quotes the authors of the book Experiments with People: Revelations from Social Psychology, who worked at Yale:

“Did you hear about the Yale study that discovered the 12 most persuasive words in the English language: ‘love,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘proven,’ etc.? At the Yale Communication and Attitude Change Project throughout the 1950s and 1960s, we would get a letter every two months or so, asking who ran this study, and whether we had the data. During this period, the results appeared in a widely read airline magazine, among many other publications.

One of the authors [i.e., Abelson] was part of the Yale Project, and remembers other members asking everybody they knew who the author of the study was. It sounded like a pretty silly thing to waste time on, but in any case, no indication was ever found that anyone connected with Yale had done such a study.” (1)

Zimmer did a lot of digging and found two lists of the eleven most persuasive words appeared in newspaper ads in both the New York Times and The Washington Post in 1961. Both lists attribute the list to “Marketing Magazine,” which is fictitious. In 1963, an article cited, “a poll by a big advertising agency” and offered the twelve most persuasive words. In 1970, a syndicated columnist, L.M. Boyd, cited “researchers in the Yale University psychology department” as being responsible for the list. From there, the Yale rumor went viral (and this was well before the Internet and Google). Newspapers quoted it. Magazines quoted it. Everybody quoted it.

Now, thanks to the Internet you can find even more erroneous referrals to the Yale study that doesn’t exist. My Google search results included pages of recent articles that quote the study. Sources included popular blogs that have large readerships, national magazines and even an advertising book written in 2010 by a highly-regarded expert on consumer behavior with a P.h.D. from Rutgers (he quotes the study twice), but his footnote doesn’t cite an actual Yale study – it cites another marketing book.

Even really smart guys with long lists of credentials can be tricked by fictional hype that goes viral.

So what can you learn from this debacle? Several things:

- Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.
- If you’re going to quote someone, find the original source.
- Positioning yourself as an expert, or aligning yourself with an expert can be powerful stuff.

While I don’t think you should ever just make stuff up in order to look like you know what you’re talking about, it’s clear from this example that information from a trusted source can be helpful to your business. Here at Signs.com, we try to bring you research that’s relevant (and legitimate—just look at the citations below!) Quoting a real-life expert on a subject that impacts your industry or business helps persuade your customers that you know what you’re doing. Real expert opinions are valid and powerful.

If you want to read about the fictitious Yale study fiasco in-depth, here are all three of Zimmer’s blog posts regarding the myth:

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003662.html
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003666.html
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003669.html

(1) Robert P. Abelson with Kurt P. Frey and Aiden P. Gregg.Experiments With People: Revelations From Social Psychology, 2004. Quoted from Language Lab, October 13, 2006. (Accessed March 16, 2012.)

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3 Responses to “The Yale Study That Wasn’t”

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