We know self-talk can help people’s self-control (e.g. “Don’t do it!”), and boost their morale (e.g. “Hang in there!”) in sporting situations. However, before now, no-one has investigated whether self-talk is more effective depending on whether you refer to yourself in the grammatical first person (i.e. “I can do it!”) or the second person (i.e. “You can do it?”).
Sanda Dolcos and her team first asked 95 psychology undergrads to imagine they were a character in a short story. The character is faced with a choice [we’re not given any detail about these vignettes], and the participants are asked to write down the advice they would give themselves in this role, to help make the choice. Crucially, half the participants were instructed to use the first-person “I” in their self-advice, the others to use the second-person “You”. Right after, the participants completed a series of anagrams. Those who’d given their fictional selves advice using “You” completed more anagrams than those who’d used the first person “I” (17.53 average completion rate vs. 15.96).
A second study with 143 more psych students was similar, but this time the students gave themselves self-advice specifically in relation to completing anagrams, and this time the researchers finished up the study by tapping the students’ attitudes to anagrams, and their intentions to complete more in the future. Students who gave themselves self-advice in the second-person managed to complete more anagrams, and they said they would be happier to work on more in the future (as compared with students who used the first-person, or a control group who did not give themselves advice). The greater success rate for the second-person students was mediated by their more positive attitudes.
Finally, 135 more psych students wrote down self-advice in relation to exercising more over the next two weeks. Those who referred to themselves as “You” in that advice subsequently stated that they planned to do more exercise over the next two weeks, and they also went on to report more positive attitudes towards exercising, than those students who referred to themselves as “I”.
Dolcos and her colleagues said theirs was the “first experimental demonstration” that second-person self-talk is more effective than the first-person variety, thus complementing “past intuitions and descriptive data” suggesting that people resort to second-person self-talk when in more demanding situations. The researchers speculate that second-person self-talk may have this beneficial effect because it cues memories of receiving support and encouragement from others, especially in childhood. “Future work should examine ways to actually training people to strategically use the second-person in ways that improve their self-regulation …” they said.
Many readers will likely be disappointed by the dependence on purely psychology student samples. You might wonder too whether writing down self-advice is truly equivalent to internal self-talk; and maybe you’ll have doubts about the extent to which anagram performance and exercising intentions tells us about potential effects in the real world. Another issue is that the study didn’t investigate people’s preferences for self-talk – is it a blanket rule that second-person self talk is superior for everyone?
Dolcos, S., & Albarracin, D. (2014). The inner speech of behavioral regulation: Intentions and task performance strengthen when you talk to yourself as a You European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2048