June 8, 2017
A stranger approached me at a grocery store. “Do you need help finding something?” he asked. At first, I wasn’t sure what he meant. Then the realization kicked in: I was talking out loud, to myself, in public. It was a habit I’d grown so comfortable with that I didn’t even realize I was doing it.
The fairly common habit of talking aloud to yourself is what psychologists call external self-talk. And although self-talk is sometimes looked at as just an eccentric quirk, research has found that it can influence behavior and cognition.
“Language provides us with this tool to gain distance from our own experiences when we’re reflecting on our lives. And that’s really why it’s useful,” said Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.
Even how you refer to yourself when talking to yourself can make a difference. Mr. Kross and his colleagues studied the impact of internal self-talk — talking to yourself in your head — to see how it can affect attitudes and feelings. They found that when their subjects talked about themselves in the second or third person — for example, “You can do this” or “Jane can do this” instead of “I can do this” — not only did they feel less anxiety while performing, but their peers also rated their performances better. Mr. Kross said this was because of self-distancing: focusing on the self from the distanced perspective of a third person, even though that person is you.
“In terms of why psychological distance helps, the example I like to give is to think about a time with a friend or loved one ruminating about a problem,” Mr. Kross said. “As an outsider, it’s relatively easy for you to advise them through that problem. One of the key reasons why we’re so able to advise others on a problem is because we’re not sucked into those problems. We can think more clearly because we have distance from the experience.”
So if you’re frazzled and need a motivational pep talk, you might consider giving it in the second or third person, which can help you look at the situation from a logical, objective perspective rather than an emotional, biased one.
Beyond motivational self-talk, talking to yourself out loud in an instructional way can speed up cognitive abilities in relation to problem-solving and task performance.
So, for example, when you’re searching for that item you just can’t find at the grocery store, talking to yourself out loud may help you find it faster. This is because of the feedback hypothesis.
“The idea is, if you hear a word, does that help you see something?” said Gary Lupyan, a researcher and psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
According to the feedback hypothesis, the name of an item and its label make you think of what that item looks like. “This helps you distinguish it from other items with different names,” Mr. Lupyan said.
Mr. Lupyan wanted to test the feedback hypothesis with self-talk. In a series of experiments, he and his team asked subjects to search for different objects in different situations. In one experiment, subjects were asked to search for a picture of a specific item, like a banana, among 20 pictures of random items.
“We had some of the subjects say the name of the object out loud to themselves,” he said. “The idea was, does saying the name actually help you activate its visual features?”
Mr. Lupyan and his colleagues found that when subjects said the word “banana” before searching for a picture of one, they found the picture faster and more accurately. Saying the word out loud, the study found, made the subjects more aware of its physical traits, which then made the banana stand out among other objects.
It’s worth noting, however, that this type of self-talk isn’t as effective if you don’t know what the item looks like. In other words, if you’re searching for a papaya and you have no idea what a papaya looks like, asking yourself, “Where are the papayas?” probably won’t do much for you.
“The finding was that saying a name out loud helps, but only with objects they have familiarity with,” Mr. Lupyan said. Without that familiarity, talking to yourself out loud can slow you down, he added.
Instructive self-talk can be useful beyond finding your lost car keys or picking out a friend in a crowd. The aforementioned basketball study also found that players passed and shot the basketball more accurately when they instructed themselves through the task out loud, suggesting that talking to yourself about what you’re doing can keep you focused. The study concluded that motivational self-talk worked best on tasks based on speed, strength and power, while instructional self-talk worked best with tasks that involved focus, strategy and technique. In the real world, this might translate to parallel parking, following a recipe or putting together an Ikea side table.
“My bet is that self-talk works best on problems where you’re trying to stay on task and there are possible distractions,” Mr. Lupyan said. “For tasks with a multistep sequence, talking to yourself out loud can help you keep out distractions and remind yourself where you are.”