Thinking About Ourself In The Third Person Helps Us Manage Emotions


Usually, our mental self-talk involves first-person, or “I” thoughts, such as, “Why am I so anxious?”

Now, research suggests we might have more control over our emotions by thinking about our self in the third-person. For instance, someone named David would think, “Why is David so anxious?”

“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 Jason Moser, Michigan State University 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.”

In a Michigan State study, participants’ brain activity was monitored while they viewed disturbing photos (e.g., people holding a gun to their heads) and reacted in both the first, and third person. The participants emotional brain activity diminished within a second when referring to themselves in the third person.

Further, the researchers found that using third-person thinking required no more brain activity, or mental effort than using first-person thinking, making it an excellent on-the-go method for emotional regulation.

In a separate University of Michigan experiment, participants reminisced about painful past experiences using both first, and third person language as their brain activity was monitored. When using third person self-talk, the subjects showed less brain activity in an area associated with thinking about distressing emotional events. Again, this suggests third person self-talk enhances emotional management.

These researchers also found that third-person thinking requires no more brain energy than thinking in the first-person.

“What's really exciting here 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,” says researcher Ethan Kross, a University of Michigan psychology professor.

“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.”

Source: Michigan State University
Photo credit: Yudis Asnar

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