A new study shows how a seemingly strange quirk can actually help control emotions.
“Why is Kathryn so upset?” Um, this sounds a little crazy to me. Isn’t talking to yourself in the third person a bad sign? Like, losing your mind? Nope, it’s an effective and simple coping skill, at least if you ask the experts at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. A team of psychology researchers there have found that third-person self-talk may be an effortless form of self-control during stressful times.
What’s third-person self-talk? Well, let’s say a woman named Rose comes home, stewing over an event from her workday. By reflecting on her feelings as “Why is Rose upset?” instead of thinking “Why am I upset?” she is likely to be less emotionally reactive.
“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,” wrote one of the study’s authors, Jason Moser, an associate professor of psychology at MSU. “That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”
The findings come from a new study published online in Scientific Reports. The study, which was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health, was based upon two experiments. In one, people looked at neutral and disturbing images while their brain activity was monitored as they reacted in both the first and third person. Their emotional brain activity decreased within just one second when they referred to themselves in the third person. In the other experiment, study participants thought back to painful experiences in their own lives, describing them in first and third person language while brain activity was measured. Again, better emotional regulation was achieved in the third person.
What also excited the researchers is that effort-related brain activity did not go up using the third person; that is, it’s just as easy for us to think in the third person as for first person when using self-talk. They note that other forms of emotional regulation can require quite a bit of effort.
The researchers are continuing to look into how this may play into our understanding of self-control and how it may help people in day-to-day life, but for now, it’s good to know that this is a free, easy tool that you can try.