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 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 using the second person pronoun (i.e. “you”) or your name when 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, in this case linguistically, promotes psychological distance in other domains, such as our decision-making system.

As such, 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 or third person, they were able to improve their ability to detach emotionally from the situation. 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.

Overall, this research shows that using self-distancing language, where we refer to ourselves in the second or third person while thinking, improves our ability to detach ourselves emotionally from tough situations. This can help us cope in such situations, and improves our ability to make more rational decisions.


Summary and Conclusions

  • Our emotions often interfere with our decision-making process, and make it more difficult to make rational decisions.
  • Using language that promotes self-distance can help us detach ourselves from emotional situations, which can help us think more rationally.
  • To take advantage of this, avoid referring to yourself in your head using first-person pronouns (i.e. “I”) when you’re trying to make a rational decision in an emotional situation.
  • Instead, during introspection, you should refer to yourself using second person pronouns (i.e. “you”) or using your own name (e.g. “John”), in order to create psychological self-distance.
  • The same technique can also help you reduce negative feelings such as anxiety, when thinking about stressful situations.