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Jason Moser tenses up on turbulent flights. He can’t help worrying when the plane starts shaking. It’s a familiar feeling, and one he can’t avoid. But he has a way to make it stop. He takes a deep breath and talks to himself in silence.
“Jason is feeling scared.”
He reminds himself that he’s been on dozens of flights and that flying is safe and that airplanes have little to no chance of crashing.
He does it all in the third person. It might seem counterintuitive, but Moser’s research shows that talking to yourself this way helps. According to a study he co-authored, addressing yourself by name can help control stressful emotions like fear, anger and sadness.
While we may think of it as narcissistic, talking and thinking in the third person helps separate us from ourselves.
“Using third person puts us in this mode where we’re thinking about giving advice to somebody else,” Moser says. “It’s very subtle, but it gives you enough distance to create relief from negative experiences.”
When Jason says to himself “Jason is feeling scared,” he’s using a name with multiple references. Jason isn’t just him—it’s every Jason he’s ever met, heard of or seen on TV. While the pronoun “I” is tied directly to the self, using his name creates just enough emotional distance to make an impact.
Prior research showed that forcing people to talk or write about their thoughts in the third person helped them perform better while giving speeches. Researchers also noted certain celebrities using the third person in emotional situations.
LeBron James talked about “doing what makes LeBron James happy” when he joined the Miami Heat in 2010. During a 2013 interview on The Daily Show, Malala Yousafzai slipped into the third person numerous times while discussing the Taliban’s attack on her home. The more researchers saw, the more they translated the third person references as emotional responses rather than narcissistic ones.
“We thought people weren’t doing this by accident, that maybe it was an automatic form of emotional regulation,” Moser says. “Maybe they were doing this to manage stressful emotions in the moment.”
The new study focused on whether self-talk in the third person required more effort than first person. Using fMRI and event-related brain potentials (ERPs), researchers found that it didn’t increase activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the brain area associated with self-reference. In other words, using the third person is effortless.
Researchers used a technique called implicit manipulation wherein they didn’t tell participants the third person was supposed to work. In their self-report questionnaires, participants said that using third person pronouns was just as easy as using first person. Combined with the neural evidence provided in the fMRI scans, Moser believes people can do it consistently.
“What we next have to look into is what this is going to look like long term,” he says. “Is this something people can practice regularly, and will it be something they’re willing to do, so long as it’s silent in their own head.”
But stigma surrounding talking to yourself is hard to overcome. Society views people that converse as crazy, buffoonish or dangerously solipsistic. You don’t refer to yourself by name unless you’ve got Mother of Dragons-level ego. Or are simply one of the world’s biggest jerks. Nonetheless, the emotional benefits of talking in the third person are palpable. In fact, it might be the simplest way to develop emotional intelligence.
“So far, it’s enough to get a bit of psychological distance to gain this self-control over negative emotions,” Moser says.
Maybe Kanye’s onto something after all.