New research confirms the value of silently talking to yourself in the third person, especially during stressful times.
The first-of-its-kind study discovered third person narrative self-talk helps one to control their emotions, and relatively effortlessly.
That is, the third-person self-talk does not require any additional effort than what one would use for first-person self-talk — the way people normally talk to themselves.
The findings are published online in Scientific Reports, a Nature journal.
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?”).
“Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain,” said Dr. Jason Moser, Michigan State University (MSU) associate professor of psychology.
“That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”
The study, partially funded by the National Institutes of Health and the John Temple Foundation, 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 one second) when they referred to themselves in the third person.
The MSU 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 discovery supports the use of third-person self-talk as an on-the-spot strategy for regulating one’s emotions, Moser said. The finding is salient as many other forms of emotion regulation require considerable thought and effort.
In the other experiment, led by MSU psychology professor Dr. Ethan Kross, 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 MSU 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.
“What’s really exciting here,” Kross said, “is that the brain data from these two complementary experiments suggest that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of emotion regulation.
“If this ends up being true — we won’t know until more research is done — there are lots of important implications these findings have for our basic understanding of how self-control works, and for how to help people control their emotions in daily life.”
Moser and Kross said their teams are continuing to collaborate to explore how third-person self-talk compares to other emotion-regulation strategies.
Source: Michigan State University