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?)