October 13, 2006

Yale and the persuasive words: the final nail in the coffin

Just in case anyone is still holding on to the notion that Yale researchers really did uncover the twelve most persuasive words in English, let's hear from an actual Yale researcher. The following tidbit can be found in the 2004 book Experiments With People: Revelations From Social Psychology, written by Robert P. Abelson with Kurt P. Frey and Aiden P. Gregg (text available on Questia):

Love, Oh Love, Oh Proven Love!

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. We suspected that it was a Madison Avenue project. Or perhaps a research assistant who had once been a Yale undergraduate put a misleading Yale imprimatur on the story. (p. 194)

So there you have it. If there really were such a study of persuasive words conducted at Yale, Abelson (an esteemed professor of psychology who passed away last year at the age of 76) would surely have known about it. Abelson was actively involved in Carl Iver Hovland's Communication and Attitude Change program, a Rockefeller Foundation-funded research project initiated after World War II. The researchers produced such works Communication and Persuasion: Psychological Studies of Opinion Change (1953). So if there was some media coverage of Yale studies on persuasive communication in the '50s and early '60s, then it's easy to see how the Yale name could have been attached to the "persuasive words" list if someone wanted to imbue the supposed findings with some added prestige.

And if this really was all a Madison Avenue project (as those two ads from 1961 certainly suggest), then we have to acknowledge that it was a wildly successful one. Here we are nearly half a century later still hashing it out. Talk about persuasive words.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at October 13, 2006 01:03 PM