What do Donald Trump, Flavour Flav and Elmo have in common? There may be multiple acceptable answers to this question, but the one we’re looking for today is that they all have been known to talk about themselves in the third person.
Now, that isn’t exactly a resounding vote in favour of communicating in this way, but hear us out: There’s research suggesting that talking in the third person can actually help us think through situations and assist with emotional regulation.
A study out of the University of Waterloo in Canada has purported to be “the first evidence that wisdom-related cognitive and affective processes can be trained in daily life, and of how to do so”.
Basically, it found that illeism — the technical term for referring to yourself in the third person — can help us slightly change the way we perceive something by giving us some distance from ourselves.
Not only that, but contrary to what we might think about people who talk about themselves in the third person, the research suggests that doing so may make us humbler and more willing to consider other perspectives (despite what the examples above suggest — more on that in a minute).
“Third-person self-talk helps here, when it is used to reflect on the event. That is, in reflections, using a third person viewpoint creates a distance from the immediate self,” Igor Grossmann, PhD, associate professor of psychology at University of Waterloo, Canada and lead author of the study tells Lifehacker.
So how does this work? Grossman explains: “Practically, this can also be achieved by taking a perspective of a trusting friend or even a person one may be admiring — though, I speculate here; we did not test the latter effects empirically yet.”
The idea is to take a bigger picture of the event into account, “rather than exclusively focusing on one’s immediate feelings, which can often be misleading,” he notes.
But what does not work is the use of the third-person self-talk for self-serving purposes, Grossman says, such as talking about oneself as if one was a brand, or to defend one’s name. “In this case it may even backfire,” he adds.
So no, you don’t need to go full Elmo and start referring to yourself in the third person all day, every day, but it might be something you want to try the next time you need some clarity.