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Third-person self-talk helps control emotion, says study

July 28, 2017

A study published online in a nature journal Scientific Reports suggests that talking in the third person to oneself in stressful times might help controlling emotions and it needs no additional mental effort than first person self-talk, which is normally used by people to talk to themselves.

The study which was done by the psychology researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan is the first of its kind indicating comparatively effortless self-control method.

For instance, if a person – say John – is upset due to recent personal issues, his emotional reactions are relatively less when addressing his feelings in the third person (“Why John is upset”) than in first person (“Why am I upset?”).

Jason Moser, Associate professor of psychology, MSU said: “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.” According to him, it can help people in gaining a small psychological gap from their experiences, which is usually useful in emotion regulation.

Partial funding of the study, which consisted of 2 experiments that reinforced considerably the same conclusion, was given by the National Institutes of Health and the John Temple Foundation.

In one of the experiments that were conducted at the Moser’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab, the participants were made to view neural as well as disturbing images, and react to those images by using both third and first person self-talks. In each of the cases, an electroencephalograph was used to monitor the activities of their brain.

The findings show that while reacting to the disturbing photos, there was an instant decrease – taking less than 1 second – in the emotional brain activity of the participants when they address themselves in the third person.

By measuring the effort-related brain activity of the participants, the researchers at the MSU were able to identify that using the third person needed no more efforts than first person self-talk. According to Moser, this forecasts the use of the third-person-self-talk as an instant strategy for controlling one’s emotions, since, using other methods for regulating the emotions need substantial thought and effort.

In the other experiment which was led by Ethan Kross, a professor at the U-M psychology, who directs the Emotion and Self-Control Lab, the participants were made to reflect painful experiences from their past by both the third person as well as the first person self-talks. In this experiment, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure brain activity.

Same as the experiment done by the MSU, this study also showed less brain activity in a region in the brain that is usually concerned with reflecting emotional experiences that are painful when third person self-talk was used. This suggested better regulation of the emotions and indicated that in brain activity, no extra effort is needed than using first person self-talk.

Kross stated that their conclusions need to be confirmed with more research, but these findings have a lot of vital implications in understanding the basics of the way by which self-control works as well as in methods to help people in controlling the emotions in day-to-day life.

Moser and Kross said that their teams are continuing to act as a team to investigate how third-person self-talk compares to other emotion-regulation strategies.

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