Life can be terrifying.
There are presentations to give, job interviews to ace, crushes to ask out.
And it’s a quirk of human nature that, before doing these things, we tend to talk to ourselves. This is often from a first-person perspective, I need to do this or That happened to me.
Anecdotally, some highly successful people use a third-person view, like LeBron James famously saying that he needs to do “what’s best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy.”
According to new research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the key really is to do as King James does and take the “me” out of it.
A team from the University at Buffalo found that when 128 participants were prompted to think of themselves at a distance—by using their first names and third-person pronouns like “he” and “she” in a brief essay about a two-minute public speaking task they had to do—they performed better on their speeches than the group who had to use “I” and “me” in their writing prompt.
The researchers rigged up the participants with different cardiovascular detectors, which helped reveal why the self-distancers fared better: their blood pressure, heart rate, and the like fit the psychophysiological profile of being “challenged,” where they felt capable of handling a task, as opposed to “threatened,” where they feel outmatched.
“Being a fly on the wall might be the way to put our best foot forward,” Mark Seery, a Buffalo psychologist, explained in a press release about the findings. “And one way to do that is by not using first-person pronouns like ‘I’. For me, it’s saying to myself, ‘Mark is thinking this’ or ‘Here is what Mark is feeling’ rather than ‘I am thinking this’ or ‘Here is what I’m feeling.’
Why the self-distancing shifts you into a mode where you feel ready to tackle scary things is a topic for another study, but earlier research found that using third-person pronouns like this, subtle a shift as it might be, helps people to better manage their thoughts and feelings. This study builds on that, showing how a more neutral perspective can help you perform better. Call it the power of being un-self conscious.