October 11, 2006

Yale and the 12 magical words

After I reported on Allan and Barbara Pease's allusion to a University of California study identifying the twelve most persuasive words, the hounds of Language Log have been searching for a source.  Andy Hollandbeck wrote that he'd poked around and found nothing that could be connected to the University of California, but did find three references to a study at Yale with exactly the same results (or, perhaps, "results").  Mark Liberman also ended up at Yale, via another set of articles giving advice for businesspeople, ad writers, and the like.  All unsourced.

I've now added five more to Hollandbeck's list.  Summary to follow.

But first, a small criticism of Mark's parenthetical remark:

And though the University of California has a bewildering number of campuses, I'm pretty sure that none of them is named "Yale".

The number of University of California campuses is scarcely bewildering.  It is 10, recently up from the 9 with the addition of Merced.  I am able, in fact, to list them in a few seconds without looking anything up.

California State University, on the other hand, has 23 campuses, and I couldn't list them all to save my life.

Now the references to the elusive Yale University study.  The first three are from Hollandbeck.  The other five are some new ones I got from a Google web search on <"Yale University" "powerful words">; these are from the first 50 of the ca. 591 hits I got.  The Yale study has a larger web presence than even this list would suggest, since some of these columns have been reprinted on several sites; I list the first site I found, without any attempt to trace things back to their original sources.

Each entry gives:

the author, with a link to one site for the article

the title of article, plus date if the article is dated

how the words are characterized

how Yale's involvement is referred to in the article

the number of words in the list.  If this is 12, without further note, the words are exactly as in my previous posting; otherwise, divergences are noted.

Scott Bywater
"Yale University Researchers Reveal 12 Powerful Words To Increase Your Profits" (1/17/06)
"most powerful"
"researchers at Yale University"

Shelley Lowery
"Secret Formulas for Writing Headlines That Sell"
"most powerful"
"according to a Yale University study"

Steven Boaze
"Copywriting Principles for Successful Headlines" (4/29/06)
"most personal and persuasive"
"recent research conducted at Yale University"

Candy Tymson
"Words That Work!"
"most persuasive"
"Yale University considers these..."

Rhonda Winn
"The Seven Second Race: How to Draw Attention Your Ad [sic]"
"most powerful"
"according to Yale University"
10 ("proved" instead of "proven"; "love" and "need" missing)

Daniel Wadleigh
"Marketing the 13 Power Words"
"very powerful words"
"a study done at Yale University"
12 (+ "free" added by Wadleigh)

Connie Glaser
"Winning at Work" column, "A tip to improve public speaking" (9/5/05)
"most powerful"
"Yale University researchers"

David Bell
"Tips On Writing a Successfull [sic] Ad"
"most powerful"
"researchers at Yale University"
12 (+ "free" added by Bell)

I'm a bit alarmed by the attributions to Yale as a whole ("Yale University considers these...", "according to Yale University").  I would hate to see some of my Language Log postings characterized as the opinion of Stanford University, and I'm sure the Stanford administration feels the same way. 

In any case, this little inventory illustrates how ideas can diffuse rapidly (and, in this case, with reasonable fidelity) within a community and how the attractiveness of the ideas, their fit to folk beliefs, can lead people to accept them without even wondering where they came from -- or, of course, whether they are verifiable.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 11, 2006 05:08 PM