The Voice of Reason – Wisdom at Any Age

The Voice of Reason – Part 5
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. The Voice of Reason – by Pamela Weintraub.

Wisdom at Any Age

Kross contends that the psychological distance gained by using one’s personal name confers wisdom. It resolves what he dubs Solomon’s paradox: As exemplified by the biblical King Solomon, people reason more wisely about the social problems of others than they do about their own. First-name self-talk shifts the focus away from the self; it allows people to transcend their inherent egocentrism. And that makes them as smart in thinking about themselves as they typically are about others.

In a series of studies reported recently in Psychological Science, Kross asked student subjects to consider how the recession of 2008 would affect job search from an immersed perspective (whether it was happening to them) or from a distant vantage point (whether it was happening to someone else). Kross also asked subjects to discuss from both vantage points how the future would unfold should their favored political candidate lose the presidential election that year.

In each experiment, those with the fly-on-the-wall perspective had more intellectual humility; they were more attuned to future changes, more flexible, and more open to diverse viewpoints. They were, in general, far more able to think things through in a wise and measured way. “The psychologically distanced perspective allowed people to transcend their egocentric viewpoints and take the big picture into account,” Kross reports. “We usually have trouble with that in the West; we need some kind of mechanism, a trick, to take us out of our own head.”

Working together, Moser and Kross have recently obtained evidence from brain scans that self-distancing through self-talk indeed confers wisdom. They directed student volunteers to self-talk while they monitored their brains with an fMRI machine. Among subjects who talked to themselves in the third person, the brain scans resembled those of other students in the act of giving advice to friends. Not so among a control group of students addressing themselves with personal pronouns.

The findings are applicable to the entire range of social relationships, Kross contends, because asymmetry pervades the way people think about all problems—better at dealing with others’ than with their own. Self-distancing, he believes, can bring clarity in thinking about social conflicts, whether in business or romance.