Talking to yourself in the third person can help you keep your emotions in check, based on new research that aims to find simple and effective ways to reduce the impact of stress and other negative feelings.
The study found that a few silent words about yourself in the third person used up as much mental effort as the standard first-person talking-to-yourself chat, but was more effective at keeping emotions balanced.
According to the team from Michigan State University, it's all about getting some perspective and seeing yourself as someone else might see you. Taking a mental step back, in other words, can avoid more extreme mood swings.
For example, you might say to yourself "why is John upset?" rather than "why am I upset?" if you're feeling down (and your name's John).
"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," says one of the researchers, psychologist Jason Moser.
"That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions."
Two experiments were carried out. In the first, 37 students were shown both neutral and disturbing images, then asked to react to them in their heads in both the first and third person, while their brain activity was monitored via electroencephalography (EEG).
EEG readings showed that when viewing disturbing images, emotional activity in the brain decreased very quickly – less than a second – when using the third person approach.
The second experiment involved 52 volunteers, who were asked to reflect on painful experiences from their past, again using first-person and third-person language to talk to themselves. This time brain activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Researchers found that third-person self-talk led to less activity in regions of the brain linked to referencing personally painful emotions, around the medial prefrontal cortex.
And the fact that both experiments showed third-person self-talk took the same amount of mental exertion as first-person self-talk is important – it really wouldn't work as a therapeutic approach if it took out more energy than it gave back.
The researchers say further study is required to establish a clearer link between talking to yourself in the third person and emotional regulation, but the early signs are good: getting people to talk to themselves in a certain way requires no expensive equipment, no drugs, and no specialist training.
It also links in with other studies that have shown the benefits of talking to ourselves to get motivated, even if we run the risk of appearing a little crazy to outside observers.
Finally, the team also notes the similarities with previous work looking at how the use of language and how we frame something can affect our emotional response to it. It's not a difficult trick, but it seems to be effective.
"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," says one of the researchers, Ethan Kross.
The research has been published in Scientific Reports.