30 Oct Talking to Yourself in the Third Person Can Help You Control Emotions
A new study showed that silently talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times may help you control emotions without any additional mental effort than what you would use for first-person self-talk–the way people normally talk to themselves.
A first-of-its-kind study led by psychology researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan indicates that such third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of self-control.
Let’s say a man named John is upset about recently being dumped. By simply reflecting on his feelings in the third person (“Why is John upset?“), John is less emotionally reactive than when he addresses himself in the first person (“Why am I upset?“).
The researchers imply that referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves similarly to how they think about others. This can help people gain just enough psychological distance from their experiences to help them regulate their emotions.
The study involved two experiments that both significantly reinforced this main conclusion. In one experiment, participants viewed neutral and disturbing images and reacted to the images in both the first and third person while their brain activity was monitored by an electroencephalograph. When reacting to the disturbing photos (such as a man holding a gun to their heads), participants’ emotional brain activity decreased very quickly (within 1 second) when they referred to themselves in the third person.
The researchers also measured participants’ effort-related brain activity and found that using the third person was no more effortful than using first person self-talk. This bodes well for using third-person self-talk as an on-the-spot strategy for regulating one’s emotions.
In the other experiment, participants reflected on painful experiences from their past using first and third person language while their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.
Similar to the first study, participants’ displayed less activity in a brain region that is commonly implicated in reflecting on painful emotional experiences when using third person self-talk, suggesting better emotional regulation. Further, third person self-talk required no more effort-related brain activity than using first person.
The brain data from these two complementary experiments suggest that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of emotion regulation.
While more research still needs to be done, there could be lots of important implications of these findings for our basic understanding of how self-control works, and for how to help people control their emotions in daily life.
Journal Reference: Jason S. Moser, Adrienne Dougherty, Whitney I. Mattson, Benjamin Katz, Tim P. Moran, Darwin Guevarra, Holly Shablack, Ozlem Ayduk, John Jonides, Marc G. Berman, Ethan Kross. Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-04047-3
Authored by: Kiara Moore, PhD, LCSW