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Need to Think Clearly? Try Talking to Yourself in the Third …

“Rose doesn’t like that.” “Rose will fix this.” If I were to talk like this, especially to myself, it might seem a little nutty. But there might be a good reason to start — especially if I ever found myself in a stressful situation where I needed to think clearly.  

In a recent study, professors from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan conducted two experiments to find out the effects that self-talk in third person can have on an individual’s mood and emotions. And guess what? Talking to yourself in third person can actually help to regulate your emotions and reduce stress. 

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In the first experiment, participants were presented neutral and disturbing images, and asked to share their feelings in first and third person. By measuring a participant’s neural activity while they shared their reactions, researchers found that people who used their name rather than “I” were less reactive to disturbing images and showed more control over their emotions. In a dramatic example, people who spoke in third person showed less fear when they were presented an image of a man holding a gun to someone’s head.

As an added benefit, third person self talk requires no extra mental effort, compared to other forms of self control. “This bodes well for using third-person self-talk as an on-the-spot strategy for regulating one’s emotions,” explains Jason Moser, MSU associate professor of psychology, “as many other forms of emotion regulation, such as mindfulness and thinking on the bright side, require considerable thought and effort.”

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The second study also proved this to be true. By measuring the brain activity of participants when they were asked to recall personal painful experiences from their pasts, researchers again found that people who spoke in third person had less negative brain activity and better emotional regulation.

So, how can the simple swap of a name do the trick? Speaking to yourself in third person gets you to think from another standpoint, helping to detach you from a situation. “Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others,” says Moser. “That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”


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