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August 18, 2017

Self Control Is Easier in the Third Person

There's a way to get your emotions under control that won't exhaust your willpower.

Whether it's keeping it together at a family function or coping with the pain and anger of a heartbreak, there are times when it can be difficult to prevent our feelings from running away with us. As the energy of emotions takes over, it can become harder and harder to keep our feelings in check.

You may want to try talking to yourself in the third person. Simply silently reporting on your feelings as you would report other, less-charged events can be a good way you can get some distance and avoid being overwhelmed by your emotions.

We all talk to ourselves all the time, but consider the difference between, “How could I have screwed that up!” and, “John is upset that he made a mistake.”

When your emotions run away with you, they can set up a loop which keeps the emotion alive: “I can't handle this. How could they do this to me? I am so mad!” The study, by psychology researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, found that third-person self-talk is a relatively effortless way to exert some self-control.

Manufacturing a bit of psychological distance can be useful for regulating emotions.

“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 MSU researcher, Jason Moser, in a statement. “That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”

In the first of two experiments people looked at neutral and disturbing images, such as a man holding a gun to their head. Their reactions as they viewed these images in both the first and third person were monitored using an electroencephalograph, which measures brain activity. Participants' emotional brain activity decreased very quickly (within one second) when they referred to themselves in the third person. The Michigan State researchers also measured effort-related brain activity and found that using the third person required no more effort than using first person self-talk, an encouraging finding since many strategies for regulating emotions can require a great deal of mental effort.

In another experiment at the University of Michigan, participants reflected on painful experiences from their past using first and third person language, while their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or FMRI.

Here, too, when using third person self-talk, participants displayed less activity in a brain region linked to thinking about painful emotional experiences. Talking to oneself in the third person was again found to require no more effort than using first person.

“What's really exciting here," said Ethan Kross, who directs the Emotion and Self-Control Lab at Michigan and led the second study, “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.”

If the findings of the two studies stand the test of further research, Kross says, it will have important implications for how we view self control and our understanding of how to help people control their emotions in daily life.

The studies are published Scientific Reports.

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