Does silently talking to yourself in the third-person constitute a relatively effortless form of self control? We hypothesized that it does under the premise that third-person self-talk leads people to think about the self similar to how they think about others, which provides them with the psychological distance needed to facilitate self control. We tested this prediction by asking participants to reflect on feelings elicited by viewing aversive images (Study 1) and recalling negative autobiographical memories (Study 2) using either “I” or their name while measuring neural activity via ERPs (Study 1) and fMRI (Study 2). Study 1 demonstrated that third-person self-talk reduced an ERP marker of self-referential emotional reactivity (i.e., late positive potential) within the first second of viewing aversive images without enhancing an ERP marker of cognitive control (i.e., stimulus preceding negativity). Conceptually replicating these results, Study 2 demonstrated that third-person self-talk was linked with reduced levels of activation in an a priori defined fMRI marker of self-referential processing (i.e., medial prefrontal cortex) when participants reflected on negative memories without eliciting increased levels of activity in a priori defined fMRI markers of cognitive control. Together, these results suggest that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of self-control.
We all have an internal monologue that we engage in from time to time; an inner voice that guides our moment-to-moment reflections1,2,3. Although people frequently engage in such “self-talk”, recent findings indicate that the language they use to refer to the self when they engage in this process influences self-control. Specifically, using one’s own name to refer to the self during introspection, rather than the first-person pronoun “I”, increases peoples’ ability to control their thoughts, feelings, and behavior under stress4,5,6.
But just how easy is it for people to control their emotions via third-person self-talk ? Emotion regulation, as with many forms of self-control, is typically thought of as an effortful process e.g.7, that depends heavily on cognitive control mechanisms to muffle emotional responses8,9,10. Might third-person self-talk constitute a relatively effortless form of emotional control that does not require additional cognitive control processes above and beyond those recruited when people typically reflect on negative experiences? Here we suggest that it does.
This prediction is motivated by the observation that people almost exclusively use names to refer to other people. Thus, there is a tight coupling between using proper names, and thinking about others—a coupling that is so tight that we expected using one’s own name to refer to the self would virtually automatically lead people to think about the self similarly to how they think about someone else. If this prediction is correct, and if it is indeed easier for people to reason calmly about other people’s emotions than their own4, 5, then third-person self-talk should be linked with reductions in emotional reactivity but not enhancements in cognitive control.
We tested these predictions by asking participants to reflect on their feelings associated with viewing aversive images from the International Affective Picture System (Study 1) and recalling painful autobiographical memories (Study 2) using either “I” or their name while measuring neural activity via event-related brain potentials (ERPs; Study 1) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI; Study 2).
In Study 1, we measured ERPs while participants viewed standardized images depicting arousing negative and neutral scenes under two conditions. In the First-Person condition, participants asked themselves “…what am [I] feeling right now? ”; in the Third-Person condition, they asked themselves, “…what is [Participants’ Name] feeling right now” (Fig. 1, top panel). ERPs have been extensively used to identify the neural mechanisms supporting people’s ability to control emotional responses. This work consistently reveals two waveforms that are involved in emotion regulation: the late positive potential (LPP) and the stimulus preceding negativity (SPN). The LPP is a robust marker of emotional reactivity9, 11. It is enlarged to negative and positive stimuli relative to neutral stimuli, especially when such stimuli are self-relevant12, and is closely coupled with subjective ratings and physiological markers of arousal11, 13. The frontally distributed SPN, on the other hand, indexes cognitive control processes9, 14. Importantly, an extensive body of research indicates that the LPP is attenuated and the SPN amplified during the implementation of effortful emotion regulation strategies such as cognitive reappraisal15,16,17. Thus, our analyses focused on these waveforms. Based on our theoretical framework, we predicted that third-person self-talk would lead to reductions of the LPP elicited by aversive images but no change in the SPN.
In Study 2, we extended our ERP study in two ways. First, while the standardized images used in Study 1 are useful for studying emotion under tightly controlled conditions, many of the situations that require self-control in daily life are elicited by thinking about idiosyncratic negative experiences. Thus, in Study 2 we used an autobiographical memory paradigm to elicit negative emotion to examine how third-person self-talk operates in a more ecologically valid context (see Fig. 1, bottom panel).
Second, whereas the ERPs used in Study 1 provide information about the temporal dimensions of self-referential emotional processing and cognitive control, they do not provide detailed information about the specific brain structures involved. Therefore, in Study 2 we used fMRI to test whether third-person self-talk would reduce activations in a priori identified brain regions that are commonly implicated in thinking about the self versus others (e.g., medial prefrontal cortex;18) and emotional reactivity (i.e., the amygdala;8) without increasing activation in fronto-parietal regions that support cognitive control8.
Using both of these neuroimaging methods allowed us to pursue converging evidence for our hypothesis across the temporal and spatial dimensions of self-referential emotional processing and cognitive control. Employing two different emotion elicitation paradigms further allowed us to evaluate whether our hypothesized effects of third-person self-talk would generalize across relatively more standardized versus ideographic stimuli. Together, these two experiments provide a multi-method test of our hypothesis regarding third-person self-talk as a relatively effortless form of self-control.
As a preliminary manipulation check, we examined participant compliance with the use of the first- vs. third-person pronouns when focusing on their feelings using a 1 (not at all) to 7 (all the time) likert scale (see Method & Materials section below for more detail). Overall, compliance with the instructions was superb. The mean ratings for the first- (M = 6.66; SD = .86) and third- (M = 6.28; SD = 1.03) person conditions were both well above the scale midpoint (ts(28) > 11.88, ps < 0.001, ds > 3.13) and not significantly different from each other (t(28) = 1.78, p > 0.05, d = 0.40), demonstrating that participants could easily implement both sets of instructions.
We first examined the effect of third-person self-talk on the LPP. Because the main aim of the current investigation was to determine the emotion regulatory effects of third-person self-talk, the focus of our LPP analysis was on the interaction between Valence (negative vs. neutral images) and Self-Talk Strategy (first-person vs. third-person self-talk). Specifically, we tested whether third-person self-talk reduced the emotional modulation (i.e., negative vs. neutral) of the LPP by performing separate repeated measures analyses of variance on the early (400 ms – 1 s) and late (1–6 s) time windows (for similar approach, see9, 19). Figure 2A displays the stimulus-locked ERP waveforms and Fig. 2B displays the mean amplitudes for the emotional modulation (negative minus neutral difference depicted for both A and B) of the early and late LPP in the first- and third-person self-talk conditions.
Across two neuroscience modalities and two different emotion elicitation procedures, the current findings suggest that third-person self-talk facilitates emotional control without recruiting cognitive control. These results stand in contrast to much of the extant work on self-control, and emotional regulation in particular, which typically conceive of these processes as effortful8,9,10, 15. This is not to say that other forms of automatic self-control do not exist21, 22. Rather, our findings add to this work by demonstrating how a linguistic shift that promotes psychological distance from the self modulates emotional responses.
If fronto-parietal mediated cognitive control processes do not enable third-person self-talk, then what does? The theoretical framework and behavioral results4 driving this work contend that cueing people to reflect on their emotional experiences using their name quickly changes the way that emotions are represented, allowing people to reflect on the self similarly to how they reflect on others. This framework dovetails with the language-as-context view of emotion, which suggests that language rapidly shapes people’s emotional experiences23. Critically, these ideas were borne out in the current data, which indicated that third-person self-talk led to reduced activity in two markers of self-referential emotional processing—the LPP and the medial prefrontal cortex9, 11, 12. Most important to the aims of this study, however, these patterns of neural activity were observed in the absence of increases in cognitive control activations.
Although the current findings suggest that third-person self-talk does not recruit cognitive control relative to first-person self-talk, our findings should not be misconstrued as suggesting that cognitive processing is not involved in third-person self-talk. Indeed, diverse theories of emotion agree that basic cognitive operations are involved in generating emotional experience e.g.24, 25. What our findings do suggest is that third-person self-talk does not recruit the network of brain regions typically implicated in the cognitive control of emotion20.
It is important to note that we did not observe any modulation of the amygdala as a function of using one’s own name in Study 2. Failure to find this modulation was surprising given prior research that has consistently shown reductions in amygdala activity by reappraisal strategies aimed at regulating negative affect20. However, several studies that have used memory-based paradigms for eliciting emotional reactivity have failed to show significant activations and modulation of the amygdala26, 27. Thus, it is possible that failure to see modulation of the amygdala in this study was a function of the paradigm employed. In this vein, it is noteworthy that the bulk of the studies included in the meta-analysis we used to identify brain regions that reappraisal strategies modulate consisted of studies using picture-based emotion elicitation paradigms. However, the decrease in LPP by third-person self-talk in Study 1 does point to the possibility that using one’s own name decreases amygdala activity, as the amplitude of the LPP has been consistently linked with amygdala activity28, 29. Regardless, together, the current findings provide preliminary evidence pointing to the effectiveness of third-person self-talk for reducing neural markers of self-referential emotional processing. The exact markers that are modulated likely reflect the type of emotional stimulus encountered – in the present case, either externally presented pictured scenes (Study 1) or internally generated memories (Study 2).
Because of its simplicity and effectiveness, third-person self-talk could prove useful for promoting emotion regulation in daily life. Third person self-talk would be easy to disseminate at a large scale and, based on the current findings, should be fairly easy to implement. The ERP and fMRI signatures of third-person self-talk implementation identified here could be important screening metrics to identify individuals who might benefit the most from using this tool (e.g., individuals who are excessively self-focused in the face of negative experiences), and to track the effects of interventions aimed at cultivating it.