Rather than cursing or ruminating, talk to yourself from a particular perspective
What would Batman do?
And how should Travis Bickle have framed his famous question in “Taxi Driver”?
We’ll get to the Bickle question later, but the Batman question is a good way to start.
In a recent clinical study, some three and five-year-old children were asked to examine a problem either from their own perspective, or from the perspective of another person — in this case, Batman (White RE et al 2016).
The five-year-olds showed significant improvements in “executive function” — brain activities like decision-making — when they asked themselves “what would Batman do?”, instead of “what should I do?”.
Three-year-old kids did not show these improvements — probably because they lack the “theory of mind” that enables older children to differentiate themselves from other people.
What does the Batman test have to do with you?
Can addressing yourself in the voice of another person — called self-distancing — moderate feelings and deliver better, more rational decisions?
For example, is it better for a person named Mary to ask herself “how can I handle this situation?” or “how can Mary handle this situation?”.
Research into the effects of self-distancing or “third-person self-talk” on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is relatively young.
But the preliminary results suggest that self-distancing inner dialogues may offer a simple way to ease anxiety and think more clearly.
And recent findings affirm hopes that this easy technique can help us resist temptation, remain calm about past and future situations, avoid negative thoughts and feelings, and make better decisions.
Michigan studies affirms the value of self-distancing
Last month, researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan published the encouraging results of two separate clinical experiments.
The Michigan teams tested what happened when the study participants talked to themselves silently in the third person — and examined what happened in their brains (Moser JS et al. 2017).
The results of the Michigan experiments add evidence that third-person self-talk may constitute an easy way to ease anxiety and clarify thinking.
“We think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves like they think about others,” said Jason Moser of Michigan State University. “That helps people gain psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”
Experiment #1 — Photos and EEG brain waves
The participants in this portion of the study viewed two kinds of images — neutral or disturbing.
They were asked to react to the images in the first person, and then in third person, while their brain activity was monitored by an electroencephalograph (EEG).
When shown a disturbing photo, their emotion-related brain activity declined instantly when they referred to themselves in the third person — but not when they referred to themselves in the first person.
The Michigan researchers also measured the participants’ effort-related brain activity and found that using self-distancing, third-person language required no more effort than using first-person language.
Experiment #2 — Memories and MRI brain scans
The participants in this part of the study reflected on painful past experiences.
They were asked to use either first- or third-person language for their interior dialogue while their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI).
The participants using third-person self-talk displayed less activity in a brain region implicated in reflecting on painful emotional experiences.
And, as in the EEG study, third-person self-talk did not produce more effort-related brain activity, compared with internal dialogues using a first-person perspective.
“What’s really exciting here,” Kross said, “is that the brain data from these two complimentary experiments suggest that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of emotion regulation.”
Results reinforce a prior study
Three years ago, a team that included some of the same Michigan-based researchers tried to determine whether self-talk could ease anxiety and improve performance in a high-pressure situation (Kross E et al. 2014).
They recruited 89 undergraduate students and asked them to give a speech on “why they are qualified for their dream job”.
The participants were only given five minutes to prepare their speech, which was to be presented with no notes while being videotaped before an audience of “expert judges”.
After taking five minutes to prepare their speech, they were divided into two groups — first-person perspective or third-person perspective — with each group being given a few more minutes to prepare in one of two ways:
- The first-person perspective group was asked to examine how they were feeling using the pronouns “I” and “my" as much as possible.
- The self-distancing group was asked to examine how they were feeling using the pronouns “you” and “he" or "she,” and their own name as much as possible. For example, a participant might ask herself, “Why does Mary feel this way? Why does Mary feel this way?” (Studies haven't found much difference in outcomes between the use of self-distancing pronouns such as “you”, versus the person’s own name.)
Immediately after giving their impromptu speech, they completed a standard questionnaire designed to measure a person’s level of shame and/or pride and general mood.
The researchers wanted to measure shame and pride because these emotions are commonly felt after public speaking.
Then, they were left alone to sit in a quiet room for five minutes before being asked to complete an assessment survey designed to determine how much self-critical negativity they experienced.
The researchers watched the videotaped speeches and rated each participant on three criteria: confidence, nervousness, and overall performance.
As hoped, the participants in the third-person-perspective group performed better than those in the first-person-perspective group.
And the first-person group felt worse after their speech while the self-distancing group remained more calm and content.
On average, the participants in the self-distancing group also felt slightly better after their speech, and reported feeling less shame than the first-person group.
Likewise, the participants in the self-distancing group reported experiencing fewer negative thoughts about their performance.
The researchers also examined how nervous participants appeared, and how well they performed when asked to make a favorable first impression on a stranger of the opposite sex.
As in the public speaking experiment, the participants who reflected on their thoughts and feelings using self-distancing language performed better than those who prepared using first-person language.
What about related mental techniques?
Other forms of emotion regulation, such as mindfulness meditation and “positive thinking”, require substantial time, thought, and effort.
Importantly, positive thinking hasn’t been shown to produce results like the ones seen in studies of self-distancing.
And while mindful meditation eases overall anxiety, it can’t be easily or instantly brought to bear in many situations.
So, it seems that self-distancing inner dialogues are the way to go when you’re facing a personal problem, grappling with a painful memory, or prepping for a first date or a job interview.
Travis Bickle — Robert De Niro’s crazed character in “Taxi Driver” — famously asked his mirror image, “You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talking ... you talking to me?”
Judging by the available research, De Niro should have continued, “yes, I’m talking to Travis, and let's analyze why he's feeling so angry”.
Things might have turned out more peacefully — although director Martin Scorsese's movie probably wouldn't have garnered as many critical garlands!
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