EAST LANSING, Mich. — It might sound a little odd, but talking to yourself in the third person when battling high levels of stress can help you in controlling negative emotions, a new study finds.
Researchers at a duo of universities in Michigan conducted two experiments to measure subjects’ variance in emotional regulation to upsetting experiences when they used reflected on the occurrence in the third person instead of the first person.
An example of this phenomenon would be saying “Why is John upset?” as opposed to “Why am I upset?”
The first experiment had participants view both neutral and disturbing images, as they reacted to the depictions using language with differing personal pronouns.
Images with an immense amount of emotional weight— e.g., a man holding a gun to one’s head— elicited less fear from subjects when they referred to themselves in the third person.
In addition, the researchers used EEG tracking, which showed that speaking in third person takes no more mental effort than speaking in first person, as weird as it may seem at first.
“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 Jason Moser, an associate professor of psychology, in a university news release. “That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”
A second experiment had participants reflect on actual painful experiences from their past using first and third person language, while their brain activity was measured via functional magnetic resonance imaging, or FMRI.
This experiment demonstrated similar results, in which third person self-talk resulted in improved emotional regulation.
“What’s really exciting here,” says researcher Ethan Kross, “is that the brain data from these two complementary experiments suggest that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of emotion regulation.”
Since many other emotional regulation strategies, such as mindfulness and positive thinking, require a lot of mental effort and concentration, perhaps this could be a new method for coping with emotional issues.
The study’s findings were published earlier this month in the journal Scientific Reports.