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Want to think more clearly... Talk of yourself in the third person.

Referring to yourself in the third person might sound pompous but new research suggests...

Want to think more clearly... Talk of yourself in the third person.

Referring to yourself in the third person might sound pompous but new research suggests that it can help us to handle difficult situations and to make better decisions


It’s known as Illeism – that habit of referring to yourself in the third person.  It might have worked for great orators such as Julius Caesar It’s something that many people associate with arrogance or even narcissistic pomposity.  


However, new research suggests that talking about ourselves as “he”, “she,” “him” or “her” can actually improve not only our decision making but also the way in which we manage our emotions when handling difficult situations and responding to them. 


“Referring to ourselves in a more distanced, objective way, almost as if we were observers rather than actors, when we’re reflecting on a difficult conversation or an tense situation can help to lift the emotional fog and remove the biases and distortions that we’re all naturally subject to,” says James Brooke Director  at Threshold.  “To put it simply, it helps us to be wiser.”


Sound judgement


An associate professor at the University of Waterloo, Igor Grossmann is a social-cognitive scientist who explores the interplay of sociocultural factors for wise reasoning and sound judgment.  He’s particularly interested in the study of wisdom – how do we become wiser people, able to make better decisions?


Grossmann is developing a sound methodology for assessing wise reasoning.  In one experiment he invited participants to discuss, out loud, a personal or political dilemma.  He then assessed them, among other things, on their intellectual humility, their ability to acknowledge other people’s perspectives, their ability to recognise uncertainty and to look for compromises – all factors that most people who regard as being essential in building wisdom. 


So how do you drive up your scores here and, thereby, improve your wisdom?  In a collaboration with Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, Grossmann carried out a number of experiments that involved participants discussing major decisions and difficult situations such as taking in a new job or giving critical feedback to line reports.  The results backed up his hypothesis.


More effective reasoning and decision making


But could this calmer, more effective reasoning and decision making continue in the longer term?  Nearly 300 participants who had undergone such experiments with illeism were asked to write a daily log for a month, describing difficult situations such as arguments and handling bad news.  Half went back to doing this in the first person while the other half continued to use the third.  After this time all the participants returned to the initial wise reasoning test.


“Sure enough,” says James , “while the wise reasoning scores of those who used the normal first person reference to themselves in these scenarios were unchanged, the participants who practiced illeism to give themselves that more objective distancing, continued to become wiser when it came to skills such as the ability to find a compromise.”


Grossmann and his team then took his research further to explore the participants’ ability to regulate their emotions.  Following the four weeks log the participants were asked to predict how their feelings towards a close family member might evolve over the coming month.  Those in the control group (the people who continued to think about themselves in the first person) over-estimated their positive emotions and underestimated their negative feelings.


The third person and handling difficult situations


However, the participants who had used the third person format correctly estimated that they would be able to handle difficult situations and to manage their own emotions more effectively.


“Professor Grossmann’s research clearly demonstrates how stepping back from a situation and taking a more objective view can make you wiser and able to make better decisions,” says James.  “Taking a more independent perspective can overcome the kind of unhelpful thought distortions that make us assume that something must be right, for instance, because we’ve thought of it or it derives from our world view.”


“Be a fly on the wall”


“The findings certainly back up our advice in Be Bulletproof to ‘Be a fly on the wall’ and to ‘Step back and ask why?’,” S/HE says.  “We have what we call the three-chair exercise.  You take three chairs and sit in one to view the situation in the way you normally would, from your own viewpoint.  But then you move to the second chair and view it from the other person’s perspective.


“Finally, you sit in the third chair and observe the situation in the way that you would as a disinterested third-party observer,” James continues.  “It’s fascinating to see how this physical move affects people mentally, allowing them to gain greater insights and wisdom and to handle problems and difficult situations at work so much more effectively.”


Part of the HOW TO WORK WITH HUMANS series, by Threshold.


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