How Self-Distancing Can Help You Make More Rational Decisions

Picture of LeBron James throwing a basketball.

 

“One thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision. I wanted to do what’s best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy.”

-LeBron James, legendary basketball player, when interviewed about his decision to leave his old marketing agency.

It’s hard to set your emotions aside when faced with difficult decisions. Often, these emotions cause us to make the wrong choice, in many areas of life: from our relationships, to our finances, to our habits, and so on. The problem is that setting these emotions aside is easier said than done. However, one way to at least reduce the impact of these emotions, is through a relatively simple shift in our perception.

 

How it works

The method described here is based on a study which examined people’s self-talk mechanism: that inner monologue that we all have when we think. The researchers’ starting point was that using your own name or the second person pronoun (you) when thinking about yourself during introspection, promotes emotional self-distancing. This concept is consistent with the construal level theory, which suggests that creating psychological distance in one domain (e.g. linguistically), promotes psychological distance in other domains (e.g. decision making).

The researchers asked participants to recall two personal experiences: one which was anger-related, and one which was anxiety-related. There were two groups of participants:

  • Participants in the first group were instructed to think about themselves in the first person. For example, they would ask themselves “Why did I feel this way?”
  • Participants in the second group were instructed to think about themselves using second person pronouns, or using their own name. For example, they would ask themselves “Why did you feel this way?” or “Why did John feel this way?”

The researchers measured participants’ self-distance during their recollection of their past experiences. What they found was that the simple change in perception allowed participants to increase their emotional self distance when considering these events.

 

A graph which shows how a variation in linguistic perception impacts psychological self-distance. When thinking of events which are anger-related or anxiety-related, using non-first-person pronouns increases self distance compared to using first-person pronouns.

 

This improvement is so important, because increasing emotional distance has been shown to improve individual decision making ability. One study, for example, showed that increasing self-distance reduces decision biases, under a variety of experimental conditions. Another study found that psychological distance improves decision making during information overload. Furthermore, the scientists who conducted the current study, also published the results of several other experiments in the same paper. These experiments showed that self distance helped participants cope better with socially distressful situations; this was true even for individuals who are inherently prone to social anxiety.

 

Summary and Conclusions

  • Avoid using first-person-pronouns (“I”) during introspection and decision making.
  • Instead, use second person pronouns (“you”) or your own name, in order to create psychological self-distance.
  • This self-distance improves your ability to set aside your emotions, and enables you to think more rationally, and to make better decisions.
  • The same technique can also help you reduce social anxiety when thinking about stressful situations.