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  • Pamela Weintraub

INNER VOICE, Psychology Today 2015

Updated: Jul 9, 2018

Everyone engages in self-talk. But much depends on the way we do it. Scientists now find that the right words can free us from our fears and make us as wise about ourselves as we often are about others.


Psychologist Ethan Kross was coasting through the streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in Spring 2010 when he passed a red light. “Ethan, you idiot!” he said to himself, vowing to drive safely the rest of the way home. Then, because he is, after all, a psychologist, he stopped to reflect on his turn of phrase. He didn’t say, “I’m an idiot.” “I called myself by my first name,” he noted to himself. “Why?” 


A few months later, LeBron James, the future Hall of Fame basketball player, was on television discussing his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Fans in Cleveland were burning his jersey in effigy, but James explained his decision had come from a place of calm. “One thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision,” he told the audience. “I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James, and to do what makes LeBron James happy.” Many questioned his sanity, and Kross himself might have chalked such language up to standard celebrity narcissism had he not recalled his own moment of self-reference. 


Then Kross heard Malala Yousafzai, the selfless Pakistani activist for women’s education and the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize, on The Daily Show, recounting her approach to the Taliban. “‘If the Taliban comes, what would you do, Malala,’” she described herself as having said at the time. “Then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’” 

That spurred Kross the psychologist into action. He knew that people naturally talk to themselves, but he didn’t know whether the chatter amounted to much or whether the words they used even mattered. So he decided to look into things. 


In a series of groundbreaking experiments, Kross has found that how people conduct their inner monologues has an enormous effect on their success in life. Talk to yourself with the pronoun I, for instance, and you’re likely to fluster and perform poorly in stressful circumstances. Address yourself by your name and your chances of acing a host of tasks, from speech making to self-advocacy, suddenly soar. 


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