Fast Company 8/11/19
We credit Socrates with the insight that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and that to “know thyself” is the path to true wisdom. But is there a right and a wrong way to go about such self-reflection?
Simple rumination—the process of churning your concerns around in your head—isn’t the answer. It’s likely to cause you to become stuck in the rut of your own thoughts and immersed in the emotions that might be leading you astray. Certainly, research has shown that people who are prone to rumination also often suffer from impaired decision-making under pressure and are at a substantially increased risk of depression.
Instead, the scientific research suggests that you should adopt an ancient rhetorical method favored by the likes of Julius Caesar and known as “illeism” —or speaking about yourself in the third person (the term was coined in 1809 by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge from the Latin ille meaning “he, that”). If I was considering an argument that I’d had with a friend, for instance, I might start by silently thinking to myself: “David felt frustrated that . . . ” The idea is that this small change in perspective can clear your emotional fog, allowing you to see past your biases.
A bulk of research has already shown that this kind of third-person thinking can temporarily improve decision-making. Now a preprint at PsyArxiv finds that it can also bring long-term benefits to thinking and emotional regulation. The researchers said this was “the first evidence that wisdom-related cognitive and affective processes can be trained in daily life, and of how to do so.”
The findings are the brainchild of the psychologist Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo in Canada, whose work on the psychology of wisdom was one of the inspirations for my recent book on intelligence and how we can make wiser decisions.
Grossmann’s aim is to build a strong experimental footing for the study of wisdom, which had long been considered too nebulous for scientific enquiry. In one of his earlier experiments, he established that it’s possible to measure wise reasoning and that, as with IQ, people’s scores matter. He did this by asking participants to discuss out loud a personal or political dilemma, which he then scored on various elements of thinking long considered crucial to wisdom, including: intellectual humility; taking the perspective of others; recognizing uncertainty; and having the capacity to search for a compromise. Grossmann found that these wise-reasoning scores were far better than intelligence tests at predicting emotional well-being and relationship satisfaction—supporting the idea that wisdom, as defined by these qualities, constitutes a unique construct that determines how we navigate life challenges.
Working with Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan, Grossmann has also looked for ways to improve these scores—with some striking experiments demonstrating the power of illeism. In a series of laboratory experiments, they found that people tend to be humbler, and readier to consider other perspectives, when they are asked to describe problems in the third person.
Imagine, for instance, that you are arguing with your partner. Adopting a third-person perspective might help you to recognize their point of view or to accept the limits of your understanding of the problem at hand. Or imagine you are considering changing jobs. Taking the distanced perspective could help you to weigh up the benefits and the risks of the move more dispassionately.
This earlier research involved only short-term interventions, however—meaning it was far from clear whether wiser reasoning would become a long-term habit with regular practice at illeism.
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