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 health, and so on.

The problem is that setting these emotions aside is easier said than done. However, one way to at least reduce their impact is to use a relatively simple self-distancing technique, that helps us shift our perception, in a way that enables us to make more rational decisions.


How self-distancing works

The method described here is based on a study which examined people’s self-talk mechanism: that inner monologue that most of us use when we think.

The researchers’ starting point was that you can promote self-distance during times of introspection, by using the second-person pronoun (“you”) or by using your own name (e.g. “John”) when thinking about yourself, instead of using the first-person pronoun (“I”).

This concept is consistent with the construal level theory, which suggests that creating psychological distance in one domain, in this case linguistically, can promote psychological distance in other domains, such as in our decision making.

Based on this, the researchers asked the participants in their experiment 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 then 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, as we see in the graph below.


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.


Essentially, when people referred to themselves in the second person or using their own name, they were able to improve their ability to detach emotionally from the situation. This improvement is important, because increasing emotional distance has been shown to have several benefits, as we will see in the next section.


The benefits of self-distancing

Research on the topic has shown that self-distancing offers significant benefits in various domains.

One study, for example, showed that increasing self-distance reduces decision biases, under a variety of  conditions. A different study found similar results, and specifically that psychological distance improves decision making during times of information overload.

Furthermore, the scientists who conducted the main study which is mentioned in this article also published the results of several other experiments in the same paper. These experiments showed that self-distance helped participants cope with socially distressful situations, including in individuals who are naturally prone to social anxiety.

This is in line with other research on the topic, which shows that self-distancing can help reduce aggressive thoughts and angry feelings and facilitate adaptive self-reflection.

Overall, research shows that using self-distancing can lead to various benefits, such as improved decision making, and an improved ability to cope with distressful situations, by allowing us to detach ourselves emotionally from difficult situations.


Summary and Conclusions

  • Our emotions often interfere with your decision-making process, and hinder your ability to make optimal decisions.
  • Increasing your psychological self-distance allows you to detach yourself from emotional situations, and this can help you think in a more rational way.
  • Another advantage of increasing your psychological self-distance when dealing with emotional situations is that it can help you cope with distressful events better.
  • A simple way to increase psychological self-distance is to modify the language that you use during times of introspection.
  • To do this, avoid referring to yourself in your head using the first-person pronouns (“I”) when you’re trying to make a rational decision in an emotional situation. Instead, you should refer to yourself using the second-person pronoun (i.e. “you”) or using your own name (e.g. “John”).