People’s Beliefs About Pronouns Reflect Both the Language They Speak and Their Ideologies

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (forthcoming)
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Pronouns often convey information about a person’s social identity (e.g., gender). Consequently, pronouns have become a focal point in academic and public debates about whether pronouns should be changed to be more inclusive, such as for people whose identities do not fit current pronoun conventions (e.g., gender non-binary individuals). Here, we make an empirical contribution to these debates by investigating which social identities lay speakers think that pronouns should encode and why. Across four studies, participants were asked to evaluate different types of real and hypothetical pronouns, including binary gender pronouns, race pronouns, and identity-neutral pronouns. We sampled participants from two languages with different pronoun systems: English (N = 1,120) and Turkish (N = 260). English pronouns commonly denote binary gender (e.g., he for men), whereas Turkish pronouns are identity-neutral (e.g., o for anyone). Participants’ reasoning about pronouns reflected both a familiarity preference (i.e., participants preferred the pronoun type used in their language) and—critically—participants’ social ideologies. In both language contexts, participants’ ideological beliefs that social groups are inherently distinct (essentialism) and should be hierarchal (social dominance orientation) predicted relatively greater endorsement of binary gender pronouns and race pronouns. A preregistered experimental study with an English-speaking sample showed that the relationship between ideology and pronoun endorsement is causal: Ideologies shape attitudes toward pronouns. Together, the present research contributes to linguistic and psychological theories concerning how people reason about language and informs policy-relevant questions about whether and how to implement language changes for social purposes.



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Author Profiles

Robin Dembroff
Yale University
Daniel Wodak
University of Pennsylvania

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