Gain a Psychological Edge by Talking about Yourself in the Third Person

It’s cute when little kids talk about themselves in the third person. But adults who refer to themselves in the third person?

Most seem to find it annoying.

At least, based on my totally uber-scientific data analysis of people who comment on Esquire blog posts about people who refer to themselves in the third person, which definitively proves that 62.5% of people find this annoying.

Or perhaps this special report from Ellen DeGeneres, where she speaks out against illeism1. Though she also makes a good point about its usefulness in certain social situations…

Annoying or not, this linguistic quirk may actually help us better manage our thoughts, emotions, and actions in pressure situations – ultimately leading to a higher level of performance.

Yes, I know that sounds slightly ridiculous. But let’s take a look!

Taking a step back

Previous research has suggested that a psychological strategy called “self-distancing” can help us better control our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. From enhancing our self-control in the face of temptation to helping us reflect on difficult past experiences without getting stuck in a downward spiral of negative thinking, the ability to “step back” a little from ourselves seems to be a useful, if slightly odd, psychological skill.

Curious to learn more about this phenomenon, researchers from the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and UC Berkeley collaborated on a series of 7 studies to see just how much of an impact this slight tweak in our self-talk could have on our ability to rise to the occasion when the pressure is on.

A contrast in mental approaches

89 undergraduate students participated in this study, and were asked to give a speech on “why they are qualified for their ‘dream’ job” with only a few minutes to prepare. And no notes allowed. In front of an audience of trained expert judges. While videotaped.

Sounds a little like back-to-school orchestra placement auditions, right?

Anyhow, after being allowed 5 minutes to prepare their speech, they were given an additional few minutes to prepare themselves mentally with one of two possible sets of instructions:

(1) The first-person perspective group was asked to analyze how they were feeling about their upcoming speech from a first-person perspective using the pronouns “I” and “my” as much as possible.

(2) The non-first-person perspective group was asked to analyze how they were feeling about their upcoming speech from a non-first-person perspective using the pronouns “you,” “he or she,” and their own name as much as possible. As in, “Why does Pat feel this way? What are the underlying causes and reasons for Pat’s feelings?”

Next, they were led to a room where the judges were waiting, and gave their speech.

Immediately afterwards, they took a short assessment to measure the level of shame/pride they were feeling2, as well as a more general mood assessment.

Then, they were left alone to sit in a quiet room for 5 minutes. Why? Well, you know how the drive home from a performance can be either a blissful time where you feel full of joy and relief, the air smells sweet, and the whole world seems to be smiling – or a dark and gloomy time when you wish you could turn back time, shrink into nothingness, and find a way to avoid ever seeing the people who just witnessed your performance?

The experimenters wanted to see what participants would think about when left alone to stew in a quiet room right after their speech. After the 5 minutes were up, the participants completed a writing exercise and rumination assessment designed to gauge how much self-criticism and rehashing of the speech they engaged in.

Better all around

Two coders watched the videotaped speeches and rated them (1=below average; 5=above average) in three areas – confidence, nervousness, and overall performance. Overall, the non-first-person folks performed better than the first-person folks.

The participants also took mood assessments before and after their speech. As expected, while the first-person group felt significantly worse after their speech, the non-first-person participants’ moods remained stable. If anything, they felt slightly more positive after their speech than before. They also reported feeling less shame than the first-person group.

Not surprisingly, the non-first-person participants also engaged in less rumination (i.e. thinking about how bad things went, how embarrassing and horrible that is, how awful it all feels, etc.) after their performance.

Dates and job interviews too

As it turns out, the practice of reflecting on one’s thoughts and feelings from a non-first-person perspective may also be helpful in other important areas of our lives. Like dating, interviewing for a job, and similar situations where we would like to make a good impression on someone new.

In addition to public speaking, the researchers also took a look at how nervous participants appeared, and how well they performed socially3 in a stressful social situation – specifically, being asked to make a favorable first impression on a stranger of the opposite sex.

Here too, the participants who spent 3 minutes reflecting on their thoughts and feelings before meeting the stranger using non-first-person language performed better in the situation than those who prepared mentally with first-person language.

Take action

All in all, the studies found that talking to ourselves using our own name, or pronouns like “you” or “he/she” as opposed to “I” or “me,” resulted in reduced anxiety, better performances, and less shame, negativity, and rumination afterwards.

So what might this inner dialogue look like in practice? Below are two excerpts from writing samples that participants completed to describe what they were thinking and reflecting upon.

First-person self-talk

I am afraid that I won’t get a job if I mess up during an interview. And I always mess up in some way. I never know what to say, and I am always incredibly nervous. I end up in a feedback loop of nervousness causing bad interviews causing nervousness. Even if I got a job, I think I would still be afraid of interviews.

Non-first-person self-talk

You worry too much about what other people think. You need to focus on what needs to be done, and what you can do to execute it. The simple fact that other people will be around does [not] change what you need to do. Focus on you, and you will be fine.

This may sound like an odd habit that only politicians, egomaniacal athletes, and eccentric artists engage in, but if you ask Noa, these studies provide intriguing evidence that this peculiar linguistic tweak could give all of us an edge, in the moments before, during, and after high-pressure performance situations.

So long as we keep the third-person chitchat to ourselves and don’t annoy the folks around us, of course.

Footnotes

  1. Apparently, the official term for the act of referring to oneself in the third person. Who knew?
  2. Why shame and pride? Previous research has found that this range of emotions is particularly relevant in public speaking situations
  3. (i.e. Good eye contact? Did they speak clearly and in an engaging way? Awkward pauses? Playing with hair, touching face, or other signs of discomfort?)

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

21 Responses

  1. This is very interesting and something I will definitely try in the lead up to upcoming performances.
    I wonder if the author Agatha Christie was aware of this when writing her ‘Hercule Poirot’ novels?
    Poirot nearly always refers to himself in the third person – perhaps to gain perspective about the case he is working on.
    I cannot thank you enough for your blog – it is truly inspirational and has helped me overcome so many fears about performing and life in general
    Richard.

    1. Thanks, Richard! Regarding Poirot, I think you may be onto something. There’s actually an interesting study which gets at the notion that we may be better able to problem-solve when we come at our own problems from a third-person perspective. Hmm…perhaps a topic for another post someday.

  2. Your last example is in second person. This seems very different from talking to oneself in third person. Any sense of how that might change results in this sort of study? It’s interesting to think about how we tell our stories could change how those stories play out.

    1. Hi Tamara,

      Good question; the studies lump both second and third-person into the same “non-first-person” category, so it’s not clear if there would be a difference between the two. The self-distancing literature seems to delineate between the personalizing nature of “I/me/my” and language which helps to separate us from ourselves, so my guess is that there may not be much of a difference between 2nd/3rd person in that they both facilitate this distancing effect.

  3. You wrote “but if you ask Noa”…

    Haha… In the third person, it’s often the way my mother talks about me when I am there and not there, to me and not to me, and when she speaks to me about me too.
    the study is interesting but things such as, the things my mother say and their impact on me, can’t be changed by an exercice, sorry.
    There are many factors, such as if you believe what is being told, who tells it, what you did, etc.

    1. It’s possible to distance yourself from your mother, too. Mine was hypercritical of everything I did, from housework to academics to boyfriends to hobbies. It was demoralizing and useless (I didn’t get better at anything because of her constant nitpicking), and it made a relationship with her impossible. When I was older, I went to a therapist and learned how to identify the “mom voice” in my head–the one telling me I was bad at everything–and I learned how to dismiss it.

      1. Did the therapy have any changed your progress and your carreer ?
        For now, Sandy is with her mum, and Sandy’s mom’s voice is not only in her head.
        Is the job you do intimately related to your parents’ wishes, either because you do what they wanted you to do or because you do something completely unrelated ?
        Did you have ambition as you grew up from a child to a teenager, and then, from a teenager to an adult ?
        Did/do they agree with your life’s choices (everything included, from the boyfriend to the cat) ?

        1. My mother was dissatisfied with everything I did. All of us kids were criticised constantly until we moved out (always against her wishes). I found that financial independence was crucial to living my own life and pursuing my own interests.

          I thought if I tried harder and did/was everything she wanted, she would be supportive. In therapy I realized that that wasn’t true.
          So I stopped trying to please her, and started trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. It was hard, but worth the effort.

          She disapproved of many of my decisions–college major, husband, moving away, leaving the family religion–but after years passed she got over it. Now she likes my husband and is pleased with my career, and she doesn’t compare me to wealthy and talented relatives anymore, and she doesn’t criticise when she comes to visit.
          She recently told me she didn’t think I was going to hell, which I thought was hilarious as well as friendly.

  4. This relates very well to the sales aspect of talent as well. Most performers and artists have a difficult time selling themselves and their work, because it feels too much like bragging to extol your own virtues, thus the existence and even necessity of managers and booking agents. I took a few years off from performing in order to explore the music business, and discovered that when I found a performer I really was moved by, if I managed to get one to agree to let me manage him/her, I was ALWAYS able to improve their incomes and situations in a relatively short time, by doing two things. The first was to offer positive reinforcement and work on bringing out the strengths while minimizing or eliminating weaknesses, and secondly by being able to brag on the performer’s virtues when doing the selling part.

    There is no question in ronjazz’s mind that performers can benefit from putting together a small team of people to assist in advancing their careers, by doing what ronjazz did: engaging in positive reinforcement and positive selling.

  5. Christine was quite intrigued by this. She was reminded of the Buddhist concept of there being no self, no ego, just sensation. She might continue to comment, but she’s decided to practice right now!

  6. Alex needs to get back to learning to sight-read on bass guitar. Alex has only been doing it for two days and can already do well without help. So far he can name notes on the bass staff, although doing so in time with a metronome is his next goal and something he can’t quite do yet.

  7. The use of the third person reminds Sandy of the sandbox therapy. In a sandbox, the patient uses figurines to represent the people in real life, and attributes to them emotions, and invents a story, which is often a reproduction of real life. The therapists say it’s because it’s easier to say “The lion is angry”, “it makes the lion feel angry”, sad, etc. than to say “I” and take responsibility.

  8. But the two self-talks are not in the least equivalent. The first-person one repeats the speaker’s failings and reminds him/her to be nervous; the second-person one encourages the speaker and reminds him/her to aim for success. Were all the self-talks split like that? Or were there first-person encouraging talks and non-first-person discouraging ones? If not, that’s a major aspect of this – why are all the first-person talks discouraging? And if the talks were mixed, dividing them by encouraging/discouraging is possibly more important than by first/non-first person.

    1. Good observation. The participants were actually free to think/process in whatever way they wanted – there was no guidance given in terms of whether to think encouraging thoughts or discouraging thoughts. The researchers observed, however, that when speaking in the 2nd/3rd person, participants seemed to tend towards dialogue that was more self-enhancing.

  9. Chris was very intrigued to read about this. He will have to try it in his daily practice sessions and other work-related endeavors. Chris seems to have some confidence issues with himself in certain areas. This can cause him to procrastinate. Why? Because not feeling confident about what he is trying to do often makes him keep putting it off until it is too late. The next time Chris is meeting with his therapist he will have to ask her about this.

  10. Huh, that matches something I’ve been doing occasionally.

    I realised that I can sit there and happily critique the music of others and how they could improve it, but that I don’t give my own the same treatment. It was only after thinking ‘what would I think if this was someone else’s recording?’ that I could suddenly review my own shortcomings more impartially. Needless to say that I’ve since started improving more rapidly.

  11. This article was very well written and addresses false takes on we who speak in the third person. In my case , I do it to remove the I and ME out of it when talking about TEAM for example. When I see a paper with I, I and I in the first two sentences then I imagine that the writer is more self centered. By using ONE , WE , PEOPLE or A PERSON …for example, I try to demonstrate that I’am not alone in my feelings nor did I event the idea, feeling or opinion being referred to at the time. EXAMPLE: ” Your captain, as well as others here in the unit are growing tired of your lack of participation” . Myself being the captain yet not saying directly,” I’am your captain and I have had enough your selfish laziness” This can also cause the subordinate to asked himself/herself this question. “How would I feel as the captain or another member of the team if someone else behaved as I?”

    In an effort to insulate and not isolate one can make strides for bringing a group back together. Speaking the third can also help to portray the hypothetical such as, Well, if the director (myself) should grant you extra days off would that give you time to bounce back from you recent difficulties? In this manner both the director and the subordinate are able to examine things looking at them together yet at a slight distance, both knowing something must be given to achieve a certain goal.

    Imagine a coach speaking to a team member at halftime after the member’s poor game performance. Third, “Hey, what’s going on with #33 tonight?” First ,” what’s wrong with you tonight?” By using the third I feel that the player will quickly be reminded that others see them as #33 and may not be aware of personal difficulties that maybe effecting his/her performance. #33 just might be able to suck up and perform more like a team member in the second half rather than expecting other members to automatically cover for him/her.

    I disagree that those of us using the third for ourselves or others are only thinking of ourselves. As for myself , I most often attempt to avoid direct confrontation and diffuse combustible situations by entertaining the idea that I and ME are not the most important animals is the jungle!

    “There is no I in the word, TEAMWORK”

  12. Thanks for the information, I have always talked in third person to myself whenever I have doubts about something like a job, mostly using my name like “Alex your going to do great, don’t worry”. It’s great to find this is not an abnormal thing that I thought was weird…

  13. I came here because I spontaneously started talking about myself in the third person this morning.. It seemed to really help dealing with my anger

    So I was pleased to find out its not just something I made up….

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