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The things we do: Mobilize your potential through self-talk

Roxanne Bauer's picture

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People often talk to themselves.  This was once thought to be a hallmark of the self-absorbed.  Social science research, however, suggests it may be a powerful way in which we can motivate and cheer ourselves on.

thinkingHave you ever spoken to yourself?  Have you spoken to yourself in third person? Most of us have done so, but we may not have considered why we do it.

In 2013, Malala Yousafzai appeared on the Daily Show and Jon Stewart asked her when she realized the Taliban had made her a target. She begins her answer in first person but switches to third person part-way through, saying “When in 2012 I was with my father and someone came and she told us ‘have you seen on google if you search your name that the Taliban have threatened you?’ I could not believe it. I said ‘No, it’s not true.’ Even after when we saw it, I was not worried about myself that much. I was worried about my father because we thought the Taliban are not that cruel that they would kill a child because I was 14 at that time. But then later on, I started thinking about that. I used to think a Talib would come and kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do, Malala?’ Then I would reply to myself that, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’ But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with a shoe then there would be no difference between you and the Talib.’ ”

Ethan Kross, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, studies self-talk, the introspective conversations we have with ourselves about ourselves, and believes that speaking to or about ourselves in the third person may be one way in which we help ourselves cope.

In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Kross and a research team explored how people use different styles of self-talk during stressful tasks in seven experiments involving nearly 600 participants. In two of the experiments, researchers asked participants to give a speech with little preparation or help. Impromptu public speaking, according to Kross, is one of the most powerful ways to induce stress in a controlled environment without crossing ethical lines. The participants were also required to practice self-talk before and after delivering their speeches and to actively think through their feelings surrounding the speech.

To compare the impact of language in self-talk, researchers divided participants into two groups: first person and non-first-person. Members of the first-person group used "I" statements to guide their introspection. They recorded feelings like, “I worry about giving a presentation to a customer at work. I am afraid that I will come across as unprofessional or not knowledgeable. I am nervous that they will ask questions that I will not know the answers for."

Members of the non-first-person group also thought through their feelings, but discarded the first-person perspective. They recorded feelings like, "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."

Researchers observed distinct differences between the two groups. Members of the first-person group were harder on themselves and expressed more worry, shame and doubt over their speeches— both before and afterwards. The non-first-person group, on the other hand, gravitated toward more positive messages.  As a result, those participants speaking in non-first person language gave better speeches, with more ease and comfort, than the first-person participants. 

The public speaking experiment produced results consistent with the study's other experiments. Overall, first-person group members became more upset in stressful situations, performed worse in those situations and had a harder time bouncing back. Non-first-person participants, however, adopted more can-do attitudes and exhibited better self-control while under stress.

One theory about why this works is that by speaking to themselves in third-person, people are able to distance themselves from the situation and its related feelings.  Speaking to themselves in third person allows an individual to consider themselves— how they are and what they do— in a way that is distinct from the emotions they are feeling, thereby allowing them to be more objective and enhancing self-regulation.

Self-talk in the third person, may also help us guide, not just our feelings, but also our own behaviors.  Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences of the University of Thessaly, has found that instructional self-talk like “shoulders back” or “keep the left arm straight” work best to improve technique among athletes.  Likewise, several experiments by Vanessa Patrick, a professor of marketing at the University of Houston, found that people who say “I don’t” to resist temptation fared better for longer than those who said “I can’t.”  Saying “I can’t” communicates limitation and inability while saying “I don’t” signals choice and control. She compares “I can’t miss my workouts” versus “I don’t miss my workouts” or “I can’t buy these shoes until payday” versus “I don’t buy shoes until payday” and suggests that individuals adopt the latter options to signal to themselves great self-efficacy.

So, if you want to perform better and achieve goals with greater ease, it is best to replace inner thoughts of doubt or insult with encouraging self-talk.  Using third-person voice and active speech that implies you are in control will enable you to meet adversity and challenges with more bounce in your step.  Like Malala, you, too, can be your own cheerleader and guidance counselor.

The Daily Show - Extended Interview - Malala Yousafzai

(the relevant self-talk occurs around 4:30).
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Submitted by Chris on

thanks for this interesting post. although not sure that the "Focus on you, and you will be fine" self-talk message is helpful. May be better to encourage self-talk to focus on your message and how to transmit it to your audience.

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