Take a couple of seconds and think about a negative event from your past. Did you take a first person perspective when you viewed the event (saw it through your eyes as if you were experiencing it all over again) or from a third person perspective (saw it as if you were a fly on the wall)? The answer can have far-reaching implications.
One study trained participants to look at negative images with a detached third person view (known as self distancing). They found that the self-distanced group experienced less negative emotions and experienced less stress in their daily lives outside of the laboratory. Another study found that participants who took a third vs. first person perspective after being provoked experienced less aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and aggressive behaviors. Another study tested for spontaneous self-distancing to ensure that thinking in the third person works in the real world. They found that self distancing decreased negative emotion, lowered physiological distress and increased resolution of the negative experiences. The beneficial results stood over time as well. In fact, another study noted that self distancing is more beneficial than other coping mechanisms like distraction because of the unique long term benefits.
Why does self distancing work? One of the researchers described the process as follows:
[Self distancing] leads people to focus relatively less on recounting the emotionally evocative details of their experience (i.e., what happened) and relatively more on reconstruing it in ways that promote insight and closure. This shift in the content of peoples’ thoughts about their past experiences (less recounting relative to reconstruing), in turn, leads to lower levels of emotional reactivity in the short term.
Self distancing also has the same effect on positive thoughts. Another study found that self distancing also dampens positive emotions when thinking about a positive event versus thinking about it in first person.
So, try your best to think about negative events from a third person perspective. Other research shows that this actually has the added benefit of increasing moral reasoning, problem solving and aids in the achievement of long-term goals by allowing you to see the “big picture.” When it comes to thinking about positive events, you might want to take a first person perspective to increase happiness.
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Ayduk, Özlem, and Ethan Kross. “Analyzing Negative Experiences Without Ruminating: The Role of Self‐Distancing in Enabling Adaptive Self‐Reflection.”Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4.10 (2010): 841-854.
Ayduk, Özlem, and Ethan Kross. “From a distance: implications of spontaneous self-distancing for adaptive self-reflection.” Journal of personality and social psychology 98.5 (2010): 809.
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Mischkowski, Dominik, Ethan Kross, and Brad J. Bushman. “Flies on the wall are less aggressive: Self-distancing “in the heat of the moment” reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and aggressive behavior.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48.5 (2012): 1187-1191.
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