Category: The self

A highly skilled opponent can lead you to underestimate yourself

Friends cheering their friend while throwing bowling ballBy Alex Fradera

Whether we’re testing our mettle on a video game, on the golf course, or at the bowling alley, it’s good to have a realistic sense of our ability, so we attempt things that are feasible – and don’t accept unwise bets. But how accurate are we at judging ourselves in this way? In a new study in Neuron, researchers from Oxford University have shown that our sense of our own ability is coloured by the other players around us. Specifically, their findings suggest that when we’re competing with a strong player, we tend to downgrade our own ability. Conversely, when that player is on our team, we see ourselves as better than we really are. Continue reading “A highly skilled opponent can lead you to underestimate yourself”

Is OCD fuelled by a fear of the self?

Most of us have unwanted thoughts and images that pop into our heads and it’s not a big deal. But for people with a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) these mental intrusions are frequently distressing and difficult to ignore. A new article in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy explores the possibility that the reason these thoughts become so troubling to some people is that they play on their fears about the kind of person they might be. Continue reading “Is OCD fuelled by a fear of the self?”

No, being kind to yourself does not make you weak or immodest

People who are kinder to themselves tend to be happier, healthier and to cope better when bad things happen. There’s also some evidence that training to be more self-compassionate is beneficial. Overall, self-compassion seems to be a sensible practice, so why are some of us averse to it?

In their new study in Self and Identity researchers from Canada, Germany and the USA predicted that people averse to self-compassion think it will make them feel bad about themselves – for example, that they’ll feel more selfish – and also that they hold different values from their more self-compassionate peers, such as believing more strongly in the importance of success. They’d probably agree with motivational speaker Zig Ziglar who said:  “When you are tough on yourself, life is going to be infinitely easier on you”.

Kelly Robinson and her colleagues surveyed 161 young adults about their tendency to be self-compassionate or not, the importance they ascribed to different values from prosperity to equality, and then asked them to imagine two scenarios of personal failure, one in which they treated themselves with self-compassion and forgiveness, and one in which they were hard on themselves and self-critical. Finally, the participants said how they’d feel about themselves after these two scenarios, based on 18 different character dimensions.

The less self-compassionate participants tended not to have different values from the self-compassionate, and they also agreed that self-compassion is good for well-being. But the less self-compassionate said they’d see themselves differently after showing care and tenderness towards themselves. Specifically, they said they would feel less industrious, ambitious, responsible, modest, careful, and competitive as compared with the participants who practised more self-compassion in their lives. Also, after being self-critical, the less self-compassionate participants said they would feel stronger and more responsible.

Overall, the results suggest that people who differ in self-compassion are just as interested in success and achievement, it’s just that the less self-compassionate think that being kind to themselves will hinder their ability to achieve because they associate self-kindness with being weak and less responsible and ambitious. The findings have implications for self-care interventions – those of us who struggle with self-compassion don’t just need to learn ways to be kind to ourselves, but we also need help challenging the negative assumptions we have about showing a little TLC to me.

Resisting self-compassion: Why are some people opposed to being kind to themselves?

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Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Cross-cultural studies of toddler self-awareness have been using an unfair test

There’s a simple and fun way to test a toddler’s self-awareness. You make a red mark (or place a red sticker) on their forehead discreetly, and then you see what happens when they look in a mirror. If they have a sense of self – that is, if they recognise themselves as a distinct entity in the world – then they will see that there is a strange red mark on their face and attempt to touch it or remove it.

This is called the “mirror self-recognition test” (it’s used to test self-awareness in animals too) and by age two most kids “pass” the test, at least in Western countries. Several studies have suggested that the ability to pass the test is delayed, sometimes by years, in non-Western cultures, such as rural India and Cameroon, Fiji and Peru. But now a study in Developmental Science says this may be because the mirror test is culturally biased. Using a more physical and social self-awareness test, Josephine Ross at the University of Dundee and her colleagues actually find more precocious performance in a non-Western (Zambian) group of toddlers.

The researchers tested 33 mother-child pairs in Ikelenge, Zambia (a rural culture that emphasises the important of interdependence); 31 in Dundee, Scotland (a typical Western culture that emphasises independence and autonomy); and 22 in Istanbul, Turkey (a mixed culture that emphasises both autonomy and interdependence). The children were all aged between 15 and 18 months.

The researchers first filmed the mothers and their children playing and looked for differences in their parenting style: whether it was more “distal” involving more talk and less physical contact, which is typical of Western cultures, or more “proximal”, with more physical contact, which is more typical of non-Western interdependent cultures. During play, the mothers put a red sticker on their child’s head. Then the children were given the mirror self-recognition test. The Scottish children showed the highest pass rate (47 per cent) followed by the Turkish children (41 per cent) and the Zambian children (15 per cent), consistent with past research.

Next, the researchers used a different test of self-awareness that actually originates in the writings of the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. The children were asked to push a toy trolley toward their mother while they were standing on a mat that was attached to the bottom of the trolley. To succeed they must realise that their body is holding down the mat and step off it to push the trolley.

Whereas the mirror test is about recognising that the self has a distinct visual identity (a concept consistent with Western notions of an independent, autonomous self), the trolley test is more about realising that the self is a physical object like other objects. There is also a more social, collaborative element to the test because it involves pushing the trolley towards another person. The researchers reasoned that children raised in a more interdependent culture would excel at the task and that’s exactly what they found. Fifty per cent of the Zambian children passed the test, compared with 57 per cent of the Turkish and 23 per cent of the Scottish.

The measures of parenting style that the researchers looked at did not explain much of the cultural variance in performance, but they said that might be because they looked at the wrong things, such as eye contact and physical proximity and future research will need to explore other factors, such as mothers’ attitudes towards teaching their children interdependence versus autonomy.

The Zambian children were less familiar with mirrors than the other children, but they were given the chance to explore one before the self-awareness test, and anyway, past research has shown that performance on the test is not related to mirror experience. The Zambian children were also more precocious walkers than the other children, which you might think would explain their superior performance (compared with the Scottish kids) on the trolley test, but in fact performance on the trolley test was not related to walking ability. In short, the researchers favour the idea that the cultural differences on the two tests are due to the distinct perspectives on the self that are encouraged in the different cultures, rather than to familiarity with the test equipment or simple physical skill.

“Whatever the explanation for the cultural difference,” the researchers said, “this study highlights the necessity of recognising that the measurement of self-awareness is inextricably bound with the context of our development. More care needs to be taken in measuring self-awareness if valid cross-cultural comparisons are to be made.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Ross, J., Yilmaz, M., Dale, R., Cassidy, R., Yildirim, I., & Suzanne Zeedyk, M. (2016). Cultural differences in self-recognition: the early development of autonomous and related selves? Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12387

further reading
Cross-cultural reflections on the mirror self-recognition test
Study uncovers dramatic cross-cultural differences in babies’ sitting ability

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Being true to yourself may protect against the harmful effects of loneliness

A lot has been written about the downward spiral of loneliness. People who crave more social contact often develop behaviours and thinking styles that only serve to accentuate their isolation, such as turning to drink and becoming more sensitive to perceived slights and rejections. Less studied is the question of whether some people have personality traits that give them a buffer against these loneliness-related risks. A new study published in the Journal of Health Psychology finds a promising candidate that appears to fit this description – authenticity, or being true to yourself.

Jennifer Bryan and her colleagues surveyed 537 undergrads (average age 22; age range 18 to 60), nearly three quarters of whom were female. The students filled out questionnaires about how lonely they felt; their mood; any unpleasant physical symptoms they’d experienced in the last month; how much alcohol they typically drank on a daily basis and whether they had a drink problem; and finally their authenticity.

To get a sense of what the researchers really mean by “authenticity” let’s look in more detail at that last questionnaire. It consisted of 45-items in four categories: Awareness, which means how much someone is motivated to understand themselves (points are awarded for agreement with statements like “For better or worse I am aware of who I truly am”); Behaviour, which measures how much the person actually acts in accordance with their values and beliefs; Related Orientations, which is about how open and honest the person is in their relationships; and finally, Unbiased Processing, which speaks to how much someone can accurately evaluate themselves without being misled by what other people say or do. The researchers averaged across these subscales to give their participants an overall authenticity score.

The main result is straightforward. Across the whole group of students, feeling more lonely tended to correlate with being feeling more depressed and anxious; having more physical symptoms and more drink problems. Sadly, this is consistent with prior research on the sequelae of loneliness. But here’s the thing: among those students who scored more highly on authenticity, these associations were all reduced. That is, if you felt lonely but you also scored highly on authenticity, then your depression and anxiety tended to be lower, so too your drink problems and physical symptoms.

This is a cross-sectional study – it only involved taking measures at one point in time – so we need to interpret the results with caution (we also don’t know if the same findings would apply to a different demographic group, such as elderly people). But one hopeful interpretation of these results is that being true to yourself provides a kind of protection against the usual negative effects of being lonely.

Why might this be? Bryan and her colleagues posit a couple of explanations: First, perhaps highly authentic people don’t overanalyse their lonely feelings – they don’t see their loneliness as some kind of indictment of their personality, it’s just the way things currently are. Second, authentic people are likely less inclined to try to get out of their lonely situation by hanging out with people they don’t want to be with, or doing stuff they don’t want to do. Yes, this might increase their isolation at first, but it probably helps prevent them from growing more bitter and resorting to counter-productive coping mechanisms like drinking too much.

Of course there’s a lot of speculation here. We need a replication of the finding with a more robust longitudinal research methodology (that follows people’s changing feelings and traits over time), and to test other demographics. What’s exciting though, is that if the effect proves to be real, then it hints at a useful way to help lonely people – simply encourage them to be true to themselves. “Such an intervention would be uniquely beneficial,” the researchers said, “as it would not require effort from others (who need to interact with the lonely individual).”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Bryan, J., Baker, Z., & Tou, R. (2015). Prevent the blue, be true to you: Authenticity buffers the negative impact of loneliness on alcohol-related problems, physical symptoms, and depressive and anxiety symptoms Journal of Health Psychology DOI: 10.1177/1359105315609090

further reading
Researchers say: Don’t worry what other people think, going out on your own can be fun
A preliminary psychology of “keeping it real”
Hiding negative emotions may take more of a toll on your relationship than faking positive ones, especially if you’re extravert
Your personality can invite loneliness, and loneliness can shape your personality
Loneliness is a disease that changes the brain’s structure and function
Lonely people’s brains work differently

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Here’s a technique that helps self-critical people build confidence from a taste of success

The directed abstraction technique acts a springboard,
allowing the timid to gain confidence from initial success

Last week Kathleen finally put aside her fears about public speaking to give a presentation… and it went pretty well! But when you caught her at lunch today and asked if she wanted future opportunities to present, you found she was as pessimistic about her ability as ever.

This story reflects an unfortunate truth: people with low self-belief are liable to hold onto negative assumptions about themselves despite concrete evidence of the contrary; that is, they fail to “generalise from success”. Thankfully, in a new paper, psychologist Peter Zunick and his colleagues describe a technique, called directed abstraction, that can help the self-critical change their mindsets.

Direct abstraction means stopping to consider how a specific success may have more general implications – this is the abstraction part – and also ensuring this thinking is directed towards how personal qualities were key to the success. Let’s see what this means in practice.

In a first study, 86 students guessed the number of dots flashed up on screen, and were given fake but convincing positive feedback on their performance. Half the students were then asked to explain how they completed the task, which kept their thoughts on a very concrete, specific level. The other half were prompted to engage in directed abstraction by completing the sentence: “I was able to score very high on the test because I am: … ” This query is not about how, but why – a more abstract consideration – and also focuses on the individual’s own qualities.

Engaging in directed abstraction appeared to give a particular boost to those participants who’d earlier reported believing they have low competence day to day:  afterwards, they not only had more confidence in their estimation ability (than similarly self-critical control participants), they also believed they would do better at similar tasks (like guessing jelly beans in a jar) that they faced in the future.

In another experiment, Zunick’s research team sifted through hundreds of students to find 59 with low faith in their public speaking skills. Each of them was given a few minutes to prepare and then make a speech to camera on the topic of transition to college life, a fairly easy one to tackle. Each participant then watched themselves on video, with the experimenter offering reassuring feedback and implying that they did surprisingly well.

The same participants then engaged in directed abstraction (or the control “how” query) before being thrown once more into the breach with a second speechmaking experience, this time on a tough topic, with no coddling feedback afterward – this was the real deal. Did the directed abstraction participants gain confidence from their early success that could survive a rockier second round? They did, reporting more confidence for future public speaking than their peers.

The technique seems to be appropriate for a range of settings, although obviously it’s only useful to use it following an event that can be reasonably seen as a success, otherwise it could backfire. And it’s simple to use to help a friend or yourself, just by taking the time after a success to think through what it owes to your personal qualities. Then confidence can follow.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Zunick PV, Fazio RH, & Vasey MW (2015). Directed abstraction: Encouraging broad, personal generalizations following a success experience. Journal of personality and social psychology, 109 (1), 1-19 PMID: 25984786

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Is self-disgust the emotional trigger that leads to self-harm?

To help people who perform non-lethal self-harm, such as cutting and burning themselves, we need a better understanding of the thoughts and feelings that contribute to them resorting to this behaviour. Risk factors are already known, including depression and a history of sexual abuse. However, Noelle Smith and her colleagues wondered if these factors increase the risk of self-harm because they lead people to experience self-disgust. Viewed this way, the researchers believe “self-disgust may serve as an emotional trigger” for self-harm.

Over five hundred undergrads, men and women, answered questions about whether they’d ever intentionally harmed themselves (including cutting, burning and scratching); when they’d last performed such an act; their depression symptoms; any history of physical or sexual abuse; their anxiety; and crucially, their feelings of self-disgust, as measured by 18 items, such as “I find myself repulsive”.

Consistent with the researchers’ predictions, the more self-disgust a student reported, the greater the likelihood that they had previously performed self-harm (statistically speaking, a one standard deviation increase in self-disgust was associated with a two-fold increase in the odds of reporting self-harm).

Levels of self-disgust were the highest in those students who said they’d performed self-harm in the last year. These were also the same students who tended to report depression symptoms and a history of physical or sexual abuse. It’s notable though, that depression was no longer associated with self-harm once self-disgust was taken into account, suggesting that self-disgust is the key mediating factor.

These findings jibe with past research on the more cognitive aspects of self-disgust – for example, there’s evidence that self-harm is associated with being self-critical and having an excessive focus on one’s own mistakes. Other studies have highlighted reductions in self-disgust after acts of self-harm, but also increases. Smith and her colleagues suggested the link could be bi-directional: self-harm may assuage feelings of disgust with self, but performing a self-harming act may then trigger feelings of shame with one’s own actions.

The cross-sectional nature of this study means it can’t shed light on the direction of causality –  whether self-disgust contributes to self-harm behaviours, or if the reverse is true. Self-disgust was also measured as trait, rather than as an acute state of mind. The researchers acknowledged these issues, but they note theirs is the first study to look at the emotion of self-disgust as a precipitating factor for self-harm, and they call for more research. For now, they said their results suggest reducing self-disgust may help people who are at risk of self-harm.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Smith, N., Steele, A., Weitzman, M., Trueba, A., & Meuret, A. (2015). Investigating the Role of Self-Disgust in Nonsuicidal Self-Injury Archives of Suicide Research, 19 (1), 60-74 DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2013.850135

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Want to learn a new skill more effectively? Stop thinking about yourself!

The human mind can be its own worst enemy. When we want to do well in sports, we often intensify attentional focus on bodily movements that are best off left on automatic pilot. The result, even for elite athletes, can be a dire instance of choking. The muscles stiffen or shake. Fluid, expert movement is lost, and the learning of new skills is impaired.

A common assumption is that an internal focus is harmful to performance because it directs unhelpful conscious attention to bodily control. But what if the costs of self-focus are more general and profound than that? Perhaps merely thinking about ourselves in any way is harmful to performance and learning because to do so activates the “self-schema”.

The self-schema is “more than a philosophical construct” argue Brad McKay and his colleagues in a new paper, it is in fact a “functional neural network located anatomically in cortical midline structures.” Their theory is that anything that activates this network – be that over-focus on bodily movements, memories of past performance, or the scrutiny of an audience – will be detrimental to skilled performance and learning.

The researchers began by dividing 36 students (26 men) into two groups and asking them to throw 10 balls underarm at a bulls-eye style target. Throws nearer the target earned more points. Both groups performed equally well. Now one group spent a minute “thinking about their previous throwing experience including their strengths and weaknesses as a thrower”; the other group acted as controls and just waited out the time. Both groups then performed 10 more throws. The students who’d spent time thinking about themselves showed inferior performance compared with their earlier standard; the control group maintained their skill level.

“A simple manipulation designed to activate the self-schema … was sufficient to degrade performance,” the researchers said.

Next, 37 more students were recruited (18 women) and split into two groups. They spent time practising using a bat to hit golf-ball-sized balls, travelling at 25mph, at a target. None of them had played organised baseball or softball in the last year.

Over two practice days, all the students completed a writing task in the various short breaks between hitting. Those in the self-reflective group wrote for one minute either about their experience at baseball; their personal attributes as an athlete; their emotional experiences related to baseball; or their strengths and weaknesses as a hitter (all the different topics were covered during the different breaks). The other group acted as controls – they spent the same breaks writing about objects in the laboratory where the training took place, either focusing on colours or shapes or the names of the objects.

A few days later, the students had a final go at the ball hitting challenge. Adjusting for initial performance differences, the control group significantly outperformed the self-reflective group. The control group also outperformed the self-reflective group when the task was changed slightly by speeding up the delivery of the balls.

McKay and his team said their results were surprising – as one of their participants remarked, you’d think spending time writing about one’s past glory days at baseball would have provided a confidence boost, and maybe rekindled old movement patterns too. Instead, the researchers said their results showed how the “ostensibly innocuous activity of contemplating one’s own experiences, emotions, strengths, weaknesses and attributes, might have activated a lurking neural self-network that interfered with the process of motor learning.”

Critics may feel this study raises as many questions as it answers – with no measures of muscle tension, or mood, or a myriad other possible mediating factors, we’re left in the dark about why writing about the self appeared to be detrimental to motor skill learning.

However, the researchers believe their study has broken new ground. Where previous research has shown instructions to focus on parts of the body can be harmful to performance, McKay and his team said their “experiments are the first to show that self-reflection alone is sufficient to interfere with motor skill activation and performance.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

McKay, B., Wulf, G., Lewthwaite, R., & Nordin, A. (2015). The self: Your own worst enemy? A test of the self-invoking trigger hypothesis The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2014.997765

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Can relationships with fictional characters aid our self development?

“… forming a relationship with an interesting but
potentially dangerous character does not present the
same obstacles in the narrative world
as it might in the physical world.”

By guest blogger Robin Abrahams.

If you’ve been on the internet at all this year, you may have noticed an explosion of fiction-based personality quizzes. What house would you belong to in Hogwarts—or in Westeros? Which “Mad Man” are you? What Shakespeare role were you born to play?

Why do we want to know?

Researchers led by Randi Shedlosky-Shoemaker may have some answers. Their paper, “Self-Expansion through Fictional Characters” rests on the concept of parasocial relationships—a relatively new construct in the social sciences that is becoming increasingly relevant in our media-saturated age.

While there is a clear, bright line between real people and imaginary people (I exist, Hermione Granger does not), there is no such line dividing real and imaginary relationships. (As far as you are concerned, dear reader, both Ms. Granger and I are studious women who exist only on the page or screen.) Even in our most intimate personal relationships, we are often interacting with a mental model of our partner or parent, imagining their current state of mind, or how they would respond to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Although operationalised in this article as relationships with fictional characters, other researchers have included connections with real people whom we don’t personally know (artists, politicians, athletes) and historical figures in the spectrum of parasocial relationships.

Parasocial relationships enable us to explore emotional and social realities without the risks inherent in the real world. The authors dryly note: “Readers and viewers are protected from social rejection and the physical danger of threatening circumstances; thus, forming a relationship with an interesting but potentially dangerous character (e.g., Tony Soprano) does not present the same obstacles in the narrative world as it might in the physical world.”

Can our fictional friends make us better people?

Other than safe distance, what might a relationship with a fictional mobster have to offer? This study examines the extent to which parasocial relationships facilitate “self-expansion,” or the sense of greater possibilities for the self. Real-world relationships lead to self-expansion when people view their relationship partner as “a valuable source of new knowledge and experiences.” Can fictional characters have the same effect of helping us envision a bigger, better version of ourselves?

They can. University students were asked to read an unfamiliar short story about a young person competing in a race, and then to rate the story’s protagonist, along with two real-life contacts (a close friend and a classmate) and two television characters (the participants’ favorite and a non-favorite character) across various dimensions of likability and relevance to the self. Self-expansion was measured by a 14-item scale (e.g. “How much does X help to expand your sense of the kind of person you are?” and “How much has knowing X made you a better person?”) and was found to vary upwards in line with the intensity of the relationship, not its real-life or fictive origin.

Close friends inspired the most self-expansion, followed by favourite television characters, then non-favourite characters, and finally casual acquaintances. The more a character was perceived as being like the participant’s ideal (as opposed to actual) self, the stronger the effect. Participants’ “narrative transport,” or the degree to which they felt engaged and absorbed in a fictive world (this was manipulated via instructions given to participants before reading the short story) also enhanced self-expansion.

While no one claims that parasocial relationships can replace mutual ones, the authors see their study as largely good news, as it implies that our capacity to learn and grow from relationships is not constrained by our daily environment. “[I]mmersion into narrative worlds can create opportunities for growth in which experiences, perspectives, and knowledge of fictional characters prompt readers’ own development,” the authors maintain, pointing out that parasocial relationships can provide role models “especially for those who are temporarily or chronically isolated, those who have limited social relationships, or those with homogenous social groups.”

The authors note two shortcomings of the study—the lack of developmental and personality perspectives. What are the effects of long-term parasocial relationships? Are they as beneficial as brief ones, or are there potential dangers to an extended commitment to someone, real or imagined, who can never reciprocate? Secondly, why are some people more likely than others to identify themselves with fictional characters, and use that identification as a source of personal growth?

Personal experience suggests, unsurprisingly, that both temperament and upbringing play a role. Self-enhancing parasocial relationships require a fair amount of imagination and psychological-mindedness. Real-life peers and authority figures, meanwhile, can encourage such relationships or mock them as “imaginary friendship” or a pop-culture obsession. Of course organised religion has harnessed the power of parasocial relationships for self-betterment for millennia: Asking one’s self “What would Jesus [or Mohammed, Buddha, or Martin Luther King Jr.] do?” is, after all, a classic case of transcending the self through a relationship with a person one has never met.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., Costabile, K., & Arkin, R. (2014). Self-Expansion through Fictional Characters Self and Identity, 13 (5), 556-578 DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2014.882269

Post written by Robin Abrahams for the BPS Research Digest. Robin Abrahams is a writer with a PhD In psychology. She is the author of the popular Boston advice column “Miss Conduct” and the book “Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners,” and she blogs about the intersection of science and the performing arts.

Self-motivation: How "You can do it!" beats "I can do it!"

Pointing handWe 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?

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

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

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.