Talking to yourself in the third person can help control your emotions when you’re upset, new research suggests.
The findings are based on experiments in which volunteers underwent brain scans while confronted with upsetting situations.
For example, a man named Fred is upset about a recent romantic breakup. By reflecting on his feelings in the third person (“Why is Fred upset?”), he is better able to keep his emotions in check than if he uses the first person (“Why am I upset?”), according to the study authors.
“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, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University.
“That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions,” he explained in a university news release.
For the study, volunteers went through two experiments. In one, they underwent brain scans while reacting to images in both the first person and third person. When reacting to a disturbing image such as a man holding a gun to their heads, their emotional brain activity decreased within a second when they referred to themselves in the third person.
In the second experiment, participants reflected on painful personal experiences using first- and third-person language. When they used “third-person self-talk,” there was less activity in a brain area involved in painful reflections, suggesting the language helped keep emotions in check.
The brain data suggest third-person self-talk may be a relatively “effortless form of emotion regulation,” said study co-author Ethan Kross.
“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,” said Kross, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who directs the university’s Emotion and Self-Control Lab.
The study was published online recently in the journal Scientific Reports.