You 2.0: Befriending Your Inner Voice

You know that negative voice that goes round and round in your head, keeping you up at night? When that negative inner voice gets switched on, it’s hard to think about anything else. Psychologist Ethan Kross has a name for it: chatter. He says it’s part of the human condition, but there are ways to keep our negative emotions from morphing into chatter.



Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, by Ethan Kross, 2021.


Does Distanced Self-Talk Facilitate Emotion Regulation Across a Range of Emotionally Intense Experiences?, by Ariana Orvell, et al., Clinical Psychological Science, 2021.

When Chatting About Negative Experiences Helps—and When it Hurts: Distinguishing Adaptive Versus Maladaptive Social Support in Computer-Mediated Communication, by David S. Lee, et al., Emotion, 2020.

Linguistic Shifts: A Relatively Effortless Route to Emotion Regulation?, by Ariana Orvell, Özlem Ayduk, Jason S. Moser, Susan A. Gelman, and Ethan Kross, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2019.

This Too Shall Pass: Temporal Distance and the Regulation of Emotional Distress, by Emma Bruehlman-Senecal and Özlem Ayduk, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2015. 

Exploring Solomon’s Paradox: Self-Distancing Eliminates the Self-Other Asymmetry in Wise Reasoning About Close Relationships in Younger and Older Adults, by Igor Grossmann and Ethan Kross, Psychological Science, 2014.

Flies on the Wall are Less Aggressive: Self-Distancing “In the Heat of the Moment” Reduces Aggressive Thoughts, Angry Feelings and Aggressive Behavior, by Dominik Mischkowski, Ethan Kross, and Brad J. Bushman, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2012.

Psalms and Coping with Uncertainty: Religious Israeli Women’s Responses to the 2006 Lebanon War, by Richard Sosis and W. Penn Handwerker, American Anthropologist, 2011.

Grab Bag:

My stroke of insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, TED Talk, 2008.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When was the last time you stayed awake at night, unable to sleep, replaying something in your head that happened that day? Did you notice how your thoughts coiled back on themselves, how you went in circles as the night wore on? All of us, even those who have been spared the pain of insomnia, have heard that voice. If you've messed up a presentation at work or flubbed a test at school or been rejected in love, you've heard those nagging, doubting thoughts, borrowing themselves deeper and deeper into the recesses of your brain.

Speaker 2: How could I say something so stupid? Why did I say this...?

Speaker 3: My house is a mess. I'm always so lazy.

Speaker 4: I really should have worked out.

Speaker 5: Cannot believe you forgot to fill out that permission form, you forgot about parent teacher conferences. What the heck?

Speaker 6: My tooth hurts, my back hurts. My body is just falling apart.

Shankar Vedantam: Why does this inner voice seem to love to torment us? Wouldn't life be better if we could just make it stop?

Ethan Kross: When that negative inner voice takes hold, that is all we can hear because it is consuming our attention.

Shankar Vedantam: Today, we kick off our long awaited annual series, You 2.0. All through the month of August, we'll bring you stories that will help you see yourself and the people around you with fresh eyes. We'll also give you research-based ideas on how to approach life's challenges with wisdom.

Adam Grant: There's a fallacy that your first thoughts are your best thoughts. And so you don't want to trust your gut, you want to test your gut.

Sian Beilock : I don't think there's very much evidence at all that people are chokers or thrivers and I think anyone can learn to perform better at what makes them most nervous when the pressure is on.

Tim Wilson: The people who know us well are good observers of our behavior, and often can deduce our feelings better than we can.

Shankar Vedantam: We begin our series by examining that nagging voice inside your head, how it works and what you can do to make it work for you. This week, on Hidden Brain.

You might be an expert, you might be a novice, you could be a veteran or just starting out in your career. You've almost certainly heard that voice inside your head, questioning if you know enough, questioning if you are enough. At the University of Michigan psychologist, Ethan Cross studies that voice, what it does, why it exists and how we can learn to befriend it. Ethan Kross, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Ethan Kross: Thanks for having me, Shankar, it's an absolute delight to be here.

Shankar Vedantam: Ethan, I want to start by talking about a couple of incidents in your own life where you had to confront what you call the chatter of your own inner voice. When you started college at the University of Pennsylvania, you came in as a very strong student with stellar grades from high school. Can you tell me how you fared academically in your first few months at Penn?

Ethan Kross: I think the best word that I could use to describe my experience is it was a disaster academically. My first semester I came in, I had graduated as valedictorian from my high school and thought I knew how to study, and it turned out I did not know how to study very well for college classes and ended up getting a sea of bad grades. And I also felt like I didn't exactly fit in at Penn. I had come from a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, and I was surrounded now by students from more privileged backgrounds than I had come from and they talked different, they dressed different. So all of those thoughts about whether I fit in, whether I belong, that became a distraction and that weighed on me. There was a mental burden that exerted, which was unpleasant and was something I had to figure out how to address.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to fast forward a couple of decades to another moment in your life when the voice inside your head was deafening. You'd become a successful academic, you were married, you had a growing family and one day you were playing with your young daughter, getting her ready for her nap. Can you paint me a detailed picture of what you were doing and what happened next, Ethan?

Ethan Kross: This is a painful experience, even when I reflect back on it now. When my youngest daughter was less than one at the time, or right around that age, we would have this ritual of sorts that we would engage in where before her nap, I'd read to her, I'd play a little bit, change her diaper and then I would like launch her off of the changing table, swirl her up and down like a spaceship in the sky and then flip her on her back and very quickly kind of put her down in the crib. And she would love it, always smiles and she always expected it. So it was something we did every single time. And in this one episode, I started going through the procedure, she knew exactly what was coming, she was loving it and the only problem is when I went to land her, so to speak, in the crib, she started screaming. And when I say screaming, I mean, I'm talking about ear shattering screams were coming out of her mouth and she started grabbing, reaching for her arm.

And so I immediately called my wife, told her what happened. She then started to come home from work and I'm then just... I'm sitting on the rocking chair with my daughter, screaming, looking at me and I'm thinking, "Oh my God, what did I do?" I started simulating in my mind, the worst case scenarios, "Have I permanently injured her? Is she going to need surgery? Oh my God, what is surgery like when a kid is this young?" So I started catastrophizing as though that were insufficient for working me up. Then I went in a different direction with the catastrophization. I started thinking, "What is the doctor going to think when I bring my daughter in? Are they going to think I might have deliberately hurt her?" And that made me feel terrible and when you couple that with the pain I felt when just looking at my child who was screaming in pain, was a terribly chatter provoking episode in my life. And not a particularly pleasant episode to relive.

Shankar Vedantam: Ethan would later discover his daughter had dislocated her elbow. But in that moment, the uncertainty of not knowing what had happened allowed his chatter to spin out of control.

Ethan Kross: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we know that uncertainty can fuel chatter because we don't know what's going to happen. And our mind is incredibly adept at simulating all sorts of possibilities. And in that moment, my mind was... it was firing on all cylinders and that certainly contributed to that negative state I was experiencing.

Shankar Vedantam: And I feel that this is as close to a universal experience as there is. I think almost everyone experiences this. One of the more dramatic examples of this phenomenon that took place in public involves a baseball pitcher, Rick Ankiel, and for listeners who don't know much about baseball, can you tell me a bit about Rick Ankiel and describe step by step what happened on October 3rd, 2000?

Ethan Kross: Sure. So Rick Ankiel was a new pitcher in the major leagues and when he arrived on the St Louis Cardinals, he was touted as the next greatest thing. Not just that year, but he had the potential to be, according to pundits, one of the greatest pitchers of all time and throughout his first year in the league, that's exactly how he performed.

Baseball announcer: Ankiel 11 and seven on the year and 30 starts. 194 strikeouts, breaking the record by a rookie...

Ethan Kross: He was an ace pitcher. His team ended up getting to the playoffs and during one of the playoff games, he took the mound and a few batters into the game, he did something that was very uncommon for him.

Baseball announcer: One on one out and a wild pitch.

Shankar Vedantam: The ball hit the dirt at the batter's feet and shot past the catcher. The runner on first ambled over to second base. This was not the sort of thing fans expected from Rick Ankiel.

Ethan Kross: It was uncommon for him because he had such incredible control over where he placed the ball. And after he throws this wild pitch, he pauses and he says to himself, "Huh, I just threw a wild pitch." He shrugged it off and then he winds up to throw another pitch. And this one's even more wild than the one that came before it.

Baseball announcer: Another wild pitch over the head of Hernandez and back to the backstop.

Ethan Kross: And now he's starting to wonder, "What is going on?" He winds up for another pitch.

Baseball announcer: Wow. Through the screen. Again, it hits off the backstop and right back to Hernandez...

Ethan Kross: And this one is even more wild than the last, it sails over the catcher and the umpire. And on and on he goes through this inning, it's incredibly painful to watch his implosion on the mount.

Baseball announcer: And another wild one. And Maddox will score its ball four....

Ethan Kross: A pitcher who previously was able to hit targets with pinpoint precision, and he's just walking batters across the bases and ultimately has to be taken out of the game. Never regains his form when describing what he underwent on the field that day and during subsequent outings in which he tried to regain his control. He talks about this monster that was born inside him and the monster is a name that he gives to his chatter.

Rick Ankiel: I wake up in the middle of a night, having the nightmare that I couldn't throw a strike. I'm soaked in sweat. And it's like this thing won't even leave me alone during my sleep.

Ethan Kross: Every time he would wind up to throw a pitch, he would start thinking about, is he squeezing the ball too tight or is it too loose? Is he distributing his weight appropriately? And ultimately this monster, his chatter, ended up sinking his career.

Shankar Vedantam: You say that the voice that he heard that day, this voice that he called the monster, was louder than the 52,000 fans who were in the stands watching. I mean, that's an extraordinary statement, Ethan.

Ethan Kross: I think it's also a statement that rings true for many people. There's some wonderful research which shows that often what predicts how we feel at any given moment in time is not what we're actually doing, but it's the thought streaming through our head. So you can be on a carnival ride with your kids that should be enormously fun, but you're worried about how the last conversation went with a guest where things were a little choppy and you're not having fun. This speaks to, I think, exactly what Ankiel experienced in that moment and what so many of us experience at times, which is when that chatter starts brewing, when that negative inner voice takes hold, that is all we can hear because it is consuming our attention.

Shankar Vedantam: That negative inner voice is often lying in wait, ready to chime in. It refuses to let mistakes go and reminds us of them at the worst possible moment. When we come back, the many different drivers of this chatter and the psychological techniques we can use to master the voices inside our heads. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Ethan Kross studies the phenomenon of self-talk and chatter, the voices we all hear incessantly inside our heads. We've seen how chatter can take the form of a merciless tormentor. Once, baseball star Rick Ankiel made one mistake, his inability to set that mistake aside produced the next mistake and the next and next. When Ethan accidentally hurt his young daughter, he found it really hard to forgive himself. The harsh and unforgiving judge is a common role that is played by our inner voice, but the more Ethan studied the phenomenon of chatter, the more he realized it comes in many guises. Even some years ago, you made an appearance on television that set off a firestorm of chatter inside your head. Now, this was a different kind of chatter. Start by telling me about the TV appearance and what happened afterwards.

Ethan Kross: This was early in my career and my colleagues and I published a study that we were really excited about it. It dealt with the idea that when we're rejected by someone else in a romantic relationship, people may actually be referring to physical sensations in their body when they experience social pain. And this was a study we were really excited about, we didn't particularly expect it to get a lot of attention, but many people came calling. And one minute I'm lecturing in introductory social psychology about the psychology of love and the next minute I'm in a studio across campus doing an interview for the CBS evening news.

Fast forward about a week after this interview aired, I walk into work and I notice a letter that's hand addressed to me and I proceeded to open the envelope and that's where I saw a really chilling, disturbing note had been written to me. All sorts of racial slurs, threats, ugly drawings of me. I immediately broke out into a sweat. And the first thing, I remember, the first thing I did was I showed it to my assistant just to get a second set of eyes on this to make sure I wasn't jumping to an extreme. And I looked at her face and I remember her face went white and the first thing she said to me is, "You need to tell someone about this."

A couple of hours later, after talking to folks in the department and at the university, I ended up at the police station, show them the letter, ask them what to do. So their advice to me was to keep an eye out for people who look suspicious for the next few days and make sure to drive home a different way from work each day so that no one follows you. Which was kind of comical because at the time I lived just a few blocks from campus. So there weren't exactly many different ways I could go home. And this activated some chatter, some really significant chatter. For the next few days, I couldn't sleep, I was pacing my house, I had my baseball bat resting on my shoulder. I was in protector mode.

I was constantly thinking to myself, "What have I done? Why did I do this interview?" My first daughter had just been born, "I've put her at risk. I've put my wife at risk." It was really a scary moment in life and it was an all consuming one. And when your chatter is consuming your attention for a long period of time, that makes it really hard for you to do other things in your life that matter like your work, like advising your students, writing papers, or even being a good partner and parent to your partner and kids, right? Because they're trying to talk to me and I'm thinking about this potential threat. So the letter and the chatter, as I refer to that episode.

Shankar Vedantam: The chatter inside Ethan's mind brought him back to the letter over and over again. He was trying to decipher clues about the person who sent it. He was trying to understand their intentions.

Ethan Kross: It was actually from a nearby town, which also magnified the significance of the perceived threat, but there was no reason why this person was making the accusations that they were making, there was no reason why they drew the pictures of me that they did and why they said the things they did, but that didn't make it, in that moment, any less threatening. And that's what chatter does to us because it zooms us in on the things we're concerned about, whether it be whether we belong, whether we're making grades, whether we've been rejected or whether someone's coming to kill us. You're zoomed in so narrowly on the problem at hand, you lose the ability to see that bigger picture.

Shankar Vedantam: So another form of chatter that's related to this idea of the fearful prognosticator is the problem of rumination. And I think many of us are affected by this. We are bothered by something small, and then we pull and pull and pull on that ball of thread until very small mole hills become very big mountains. A great example of this comes from the TV show, Seinfeld. The character Elaine is on a crowded subway train, happily thinking about an upcoming wedding she's about to attend.

Elaine: I'm really looking forward to this. I love weddings. Maybe I'll meet somebody. Maybe not. Oh man, we're stopping? Oh, this is great. This is what I need, just what I need. Okay, take it easy. I'm sure it's nothing, probably rats on the track. They're stopping for rats. God, it's so crowded. How could there be so many people? What if I miss the wedding? I got the ring, what they'd do? You can't get married without a ring. I can't breathe. I feel faint. Okay, take it easy. It'll start moving soon. Think about people in concentration camps, what they went through and the hostages. What would you do if you were hostage? Think about that. This is nothing. No, it's not nothing, it's something. It's a nightmare. Help me! What's that on my leg?

Shankar Vedantam: So obviously, Ethan, this is comedy, but I love how the writers here start with the smallest of inconveniences and then 20 seconds later, Elaine's comparing herself being stuck on a train to being in a concentration camp.

Ethan Kross: Yeah, the mind's ability to make mountains out of mole hills and to catastrophize is truly remarkable. There's this one study that I really love, it was this study done by the British anthropologist, Andrew Irving. He basically went up to New Yorkers on city streets several years ago and gave them a microphone and just asked them to verbalize the stream of thoughts that were flowing through their mind at any given moment in time. And what you see in those externalized inner monologues is something very similar to what you hear Elaine going through in that clip.

One thing that I think is so interesting is there's a nonlinearity to our inner voice. We pinball back and forth all over the place. In that clip, Elaine's not just thinking about the wedding, but she's going to the concentration camp and then she's going back to the subway conditions. We're moving back and forth very rapidly. And the other feature of these externalizing our monologues that was so noteworthy is they often dealt with negative content. Not always, but that was the majority of the kinds of thoughts that were streaming through people's heads. And I just find that remarkable at how facile we are in our ability to go from one negative thing to another and down those rabbit holes.

Shankar Vedantam: So another hallmark of rumination is that I think we feel as if we are making progress on some problem, like we are thinking about something and we think, "Okay, if we think about this problem, we can now make progress and solve the problem." And then, as you say, moments later, we're pin-balling off 17 different things and then we don't realize it, but we are walking in circles, we're the people who are lost in a forest who are walking in circles. Can you talk about that, that one of the hallmarks of rumination is it has sort of this circularity to it, that we come back to the same stops over and over again, but we don't realize we are going in circles?

Ethan Kross: Chatter is a term I use to refer to getting stuck in a negative thought loop. This perseverative circularity. Rumination tends to be about dwelling on the past. Worry is more about what's happening in the future or the present, but the common theme across both of those different states is this negative circularity, this perseverative negative cognition. And it is thought to be what psychologists call a transdiagnostic risk factor for many different forms of mental illness, ranging from various forms of depression and anxiety to other kinds of negative states, for example, people who are overly aggressive and easily set off. The common theme across many of those conditions is that people are harping on some misdeed or grievance or concern over and over and over again.

Shankar Vedantam: So we've seen how the inner voice can take the form of the harsh judge or the second guesser. Sometime ago, we featured Kevin Cokley on Hidden Brain and he studies the imposter phenomenon, the phenomenon of self-doubt, and in some ways that's also connected to the story of chatter, the ways in which people who are actually very good at doing some things can sometimes start to second guess themselves. You tell the story of Mr. Rogers. On TV, he came across as surreally self-confident, but behind the scenes, it was another picture altogether?

Ethan Kross: Yeah, there's this wonderful chatter artifact of sorts that the New York Times published several years ago. Fred Rogers had gone on a kind of sabbatical for a while from his show and when he came back, he was filled with self-doubt about whether he'd be able to perform at the same level that he did prior to taking his break. And in this letter that he writes to himself, he very, very candidly expresses that vulnerability. He writes, "Am I kidding myself that I'm able to write a script again, I wonder. Why don't I trust myself after all these years? It is just as bad as ever. I wonder if every creative artist goes through the tortures of the dam trying to create. Oh, well the hour cometh and now is when I've got to do it, get to it, Fred, get to it."

So this is really remarkable to me. First of all, I mean, we're talking about Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers helped teach me how to manage my emotions growing up as he did countless other kids and probably adults too. And yet here we see him admitting to struggling with his own self-doubt at times, which I think is such an important message to convey to folks because it really says to people, "Hey, if you've ever experienced chatter, if you've ever experienced self doubt, welcome to the human condition. We all do at times."

Shankar Vedantam: There is one final form of negative chatter worth discussing. Sometimes the voice inside our heads takes the form, not of an angry judge or a fearful warrior, but a disappointed parent or teacher. Some time ago, Hidden Brain listener, Jose Velazquez, shared this story with us.

Jose Velazquez: I betrayed the trust of one of my closest family members and left them with a financial disaster that they had to resolve entirely on their own. And it took them the better half of five years to fix it. And there doesn't pass a single day where I don't think about it and hate myself for it. And even though the person I betrayed has forgiven me, has said so explicitly, I don't see how I'll ever forgive myself. It just haunts me every single day.

Shankar Vedantam: So, Ethan, I'm struck by the line where he says, "I don't see how I can ever forgive myself." I'm wondering if you can talk for a moment about the chatter that comes in the role of shame?

Ethan Kross: Chatter refers to getting stuck in those negative thought loops. The content of that negativity can vary. In some cases it could be filled with anxiety-provoking thoughts, but in other cases, as you're referring to here, it could be filled with shame-provoking thoughts as well. Both feel awful, but in very different ways. But in my experiences, talking to people and doing research on this topic, what has become crystal clear is just how normative this experience of chatter is for people.

Shankar Vedantam: Our inner voices can take many forms. They can cause us enormous anguish. They can cause friction in our relationships. They can impair our performance, destabilize us. It's enough to make anyone wish for a little peace and quiet. That's exactly what happened to the neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor. In 1996, she suffered a stroke that silenced the voice of her inner tormentor. She described what that change was like in a Ted Talk.

Jill Bolte Taylor: My brain chatter went totally silent, just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button, total silence. And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind and I affectionately referred to this space as la la land. But it was beautiful there. Imagine what it would be like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage? Oh. Yeah, I felt euphoria.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, Jill Bolte Taylor discovers something. That nagging bothersome voice she was so happy to lose, she starts to miss it. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Ethan Cross is the author of the book, Chatter. He has studied the different roles of the voices we hear inside our heads, the harsh judge, the fearful prognosticator, the repetitive ruminator. One of the puzzles that arises from this area of research is this: if our inner voice is consistently a source of anxiety or a driver of depression, why do we have an inner voice at all? Shouldn't natural selection have found a way over thousands of years to remove something that causes so much harm? Ethan, you've called introspection the great puzzle of the human mind. What is paradoxical about it?

Ethan Kross: Well, what's paradoxical about it is that on the one hand, the ability to introspect is a remarkable tool that is a source of innovation, it's a tool that lets us solve problems. If you think about verbal introspection specifically, what many people describe as the inner voice, what that refers to specifically is our ability to silently use language to reflect on our lives. And that lets us do many, many different things. Number one, your inner voice lets you keep information active in your head for very short periods of time, is part of what we call our verbal working memory system. So if you go to the grocery store and, like me, five minutes after you get there you forget what you were supposed to buy and you pause and you think to yourself, "What was I supposed to get? Cheese, yogurt, oranges." That's you using your inner voice. You're using it to retain information.

But we also use that inner voice to do other things like simulate and plan. Before giving a new presentation, I will go for a walk around my neighborhood and I'll go through what I'm going to say, often word for word in my mind. We also use our inner voice to control ourselves. This morning I was exercising, it was a hard workout, I was literally coaching myself along, "Come on, you got this, seven more reps then you get a break." And then I counted down, "Seven, six, five." So we can use that inner voice to be a coach. And then finally we use our inner voice to tell stories, to create narratives that help us understand our experiences in this wacky world. And those narratives that we create, they give shape to our sense of who we are. I think of the inner voice, and more broadly introspection, as a kind of Swiss army knife of the human mind that lets us do many, many different things.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm thinking about one other feature that the inner voice gives us, Ethan. When we do something that's wrong, we often castigate ourselves, we are mad at ourselves, we second guess ourselves, we experience shame, we experience remorse. And obviously it's not fun to go through those things, but of course, if we imagine a world where we didn't go through them, where we did something wrong but we didn't reflect back on what happened, we might be entirely prone to make the same mistakes over and over again?

Ethan Kross: Experiencing negativity and negative emotions isn't something that we want to shy away from. Many scientists, myself included, believe that negative emotions are functional when experienced in the right dosage. We evolved the capacity to experience shame, regret, anger, sadness, you fill in your favorite negative emotion, for a reason. They prepare us for dealing with that situation that we're managing and they often serve as cues to say, "Hey, you need to focus here so you don't repeat this mistake again." So we don't want to rid ourselves of negativity, what we do want to figure out is how to prevent those small spikes of negative emotions from morphing into chatter.

Shankar Vedantam: So earlier in the episode, we explored the story of the neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor. She suffered a stroke that left her unable to engage in introspection and at first she welcomed the absence of her bothersome inner voice, but, Ethan, finish the story for me. Did the relief that Jill Bolte Taylor felt at losing her inner voice, was that long lasting?

Ethan Kross: What ended up happening was the euphoria that she initially felt when all of her chatter went away, that morphed into a state of dysfunction as time went on because although she stopped worrying and ruminating, she also stopped being able to do basic things like keep information active in our head, right? The inner voice is part of your working memory system. She lost that ability to organize her thinking, to make sense of what was happening in her world. And the lesson that she learned from going through this stroke was that the goal for her was no longer to identify ways of silencing her inner voice, of getting rid of it, instead, the goal became to learn how to manage that in her voice more effectively.

Shankar Vedantam: So I want to take you back to a story that you told me at the start of this episode and I want to have you tell me how you, in some ways, managed to control the chatter that was unfolding inside your head. This was after you went on TV and you received a threatening letter. You were terrified, you started pacing about your house at night with a baseball bat, patrolling your house. At one point, Ethan, you sat down at your computer and began to search for ways that you could protect yourself. What were you hoping to find with your Google search and what happened subsequently?

Ethan Kross: Look, anyone who's experienced chatter knows that the rabbit hole, when you're really in it, can take you down it quite deep and I was very deep down the rabbit hole. And at the very worst of it, I sat down at my laptop and I had the thought, "Why don't I search for a bodyguard that specializes in protecting academics?" And I didn't actually hit enter on the search, I did type it, but then I thought to myself first, "Well, what if someone sees you type this, they'll think you've lost it." And then I actually said, I said to myself, "What are you doing? Get your act together."

And I started talking to myself like I was talking to someone else and it instantly snapped me out of that very narrow view of my situation that was filled with thoughts about threat and, "Oh my God, what if this happens?" And it was a broader view that I adopted, "Well, look, I'm not the first person to experience this situation. The police told me that other folks get letters on occasion. They usually blow over. This will too. It's not doing any good to not sleep. So why don't you go upstairs and stop this stuff?" And that's exactly what I did.

And interestingly enough, if you think back to that letter by Fred Rogers that I read before, he did something very similar. He used his own name. It was almost as though in both of our circumstances, we were thrust into this other advisory mode. It was like we were giving advice to a good friend and we then went on to do research on this tool, we call it distanced self-talk. And what it involves doing is trying to coach yourself through your chatter using your own name or the second person pronoun "you." And it turns out this is a useful tool for helping people gain distance from what they're going through in ways that can be quite useful.

Shankar Vedantam: So I want you to talk a little bit about that research because in some ways, beyond the fact that talking to yourself as if you were outside yourself helped you, you actually have data to show that in fact, this technique is effective. You published a study where you asked volunteers to think about personal events that they were worried about and then asked them to think about those events either in the first person or using a different pronoun. Tell me how you ran that study and how it unfolded.

Ethan Kross: Well, what we did in that study is we had people first tell us about experiences from their past that people might ruminate about and in another study, it dealt with future worries and concerns. And then during the study, we would have people reflect on those experiences, we'd have them think about them and then try to really work through their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding those events. Half of the time we had them try to work through their feelings as we normally do in the first person. So, "Why did I feel this way? What was going on?" In the other half of the time though, we'd have them use their own name and the second person pronoun you. So, "Ethan, why did you feel this way? What was going on?"

And what we found was across both studies, people consistently felt less upset when they use what we call distanced self-talk, when they use their name and the second person pronoun you to try to work through and make sense of what they were going through. What this helps us do is it helps us step back and think about our circumstances more similar to how we would think about something that's happening to another person. And when we do that, we have the enhanced ability to be more objective and deliberate when we think about our problems.

Shankar Vedantam: So besides using our names or second person pronouns when talking to ourselves, it turns out there are also other ways of creating psychological distance from our problems and you found many of these techniques to be beneficial. One of these techniques involves visualization, changing the way we see things in our mind's eye. Can you tell me about the work that you and your colleagues have done to test the idea of adopting what's called a "fly on the wall" perspective on our own problems?

Ethan Kross: Yeah. So when we think about negative experiences or when we anticipate future ones as well, we often have mental imagery surrounding it. And research has shown that we can think about different experiences in our lives from different perspectives. So you can conjure up a mental snapshot of a past event and actually replay it happening in your own mind from a first person perspective, or you can also think about that same experience, but from a third person perspective, like a fly on the wall peering down on the scene. Research has shown that when people adopt a third person or a fly on the wall perspective, that tends to be linked with lower levels of emotionality, and that's true for both positive and negative experiences.

In one set of studies, we found that when participants were provoked when an experimenter in the lab acted in a very rude and insulting way to them, if we asked people to reflect on the provocation from a distance, they were much less likely to be aggressive towards that experimenter when given the opportunity than people who were directed to just reflect on the experience as they normally would in the first person. And so, more broadly, what I think this speaks to is the fact that look, it's very easy for us to become consumed with negativity and when we're consumed with that negativity, we often say things and do things that we would never dream of doing if the emotional amplitude was just a little bit lower.

And that's what we see happening with many of these different kinds of distancing techniques, it turns down the temperature just a little bit. It doesn't, I should say... And I think this is an important point to convey, when people distance in our studies, we don't take a negative experience and turn it into a joyfully blissfully positive event. When I coached myself, "Ethan, what are you doing? Bodyguards for academics?" It was still a negative situation I was dealing with, but the intensity of it was diminished to a point where I could think about it more objectively and deliberately, and that can be really useful. And often the difference between being mired and chatter on the one hand and working through a negative experience adaptively on the other.

Shankar Vedantam: So we've seen how creating a little distance using language can be effective and creating a little distance using spatial imagination can be effective. It turns out there's a third way we can also achieve some distance from our own problems. Can you talk about the idea of temporal distance, Ethan?

Ethan Kross: Yeah. I love this distancing tactic, it's one that Ozlem Ayduk and one of her colleagues discovered a few years ago. What it involves doing is remarkably simple and effective. So take your latest worry, rather than think about how awful the circumstance is right now, think about how you're going to feel sometime down the road in the future. What that does, what engaging in that form of what we often call mental time travel does for us, is it makes it clear that whatever we're dealing with, as awful as it is, it will eventually pass. And that gives us hope that can be a very powerful antidote to a negative mind that is overwhelmed with chatter.

Shankar Vedantam: Ethan and other researchers have also found it helps to give new labels to our emotions. When a negative voice inside you warns of all the bad things that could happen and you feel yourself getting anxious, relabel that anxiety.

Ethan Kross: Another tool that can help people involves changing the way we interpret what we're going through, shifting from thinking about our circumstances as a threat, to thinking about it as a challenge. And the way this works is as follows. When people are experiencing stress, they often ask themselves, and this often happens subconsciously, two kinds of questions, "What's required of me in this situation and what resources do I possess to manage it?" If you answer those questions, if, "Okay, there's a lot that's being asked of me and no way I can deal with this," that elicits a threat appraisal, which predicts all sorts of bad stuff. Poor performance, poor subjective feelings, poor health.

Shankar Vedantam: But as we saw in a recent conversation with mindsets researcher, Alia Crum, we can see better outcomes when we relabel problems not as threats, but as challenges.

Ethan Kross: That predicts the opposite set of outcomes. Better performance, better subjective experience, better physiological responses. And so that's another switch, another lever you can pull, to shift how you're functioning in a particular situation. Go from threat to challenge.

Shankar Vedantam: We've looked at several techniques that individuals can practice, but it's striking, of course, that long before you had psychological science come up with solutions to the problem of chatter, societies have been grappling with ways to help people deal with stressors and out of control anxiety. You cited a remarkable study looking at a technique practiced by Israeli women living in war zones. What did the women do to bring their anxieties and their chatter under control?

Ethan Kross: Well, they activated an ancient chatter fighting tool, which was they prayed, ritualistically, and praying for them was associated with reductions in anxiety. You look at cultures around the world, think about the death of a loved one. Lots of different religions prescribed very, very different kinds of rituals for engaging with that kind of chatter-provoking event and research shows that engaging in a ritual can actually be helpful for modulating our chatter. One thing to keep in mind is when we're experiencing chatter, we often feel like we don't have control over the thoughts and feelings that are streaming through our head. And one of the reasons we think rituals are helpful is because a ritual is under your control. It's a rigid sequence of behaviors that you perform the same way every time. That's something that you have agency over and that's a way of compensating for the lack of control we often feel when we're struggling with chatter.

Another way that they can aid us is they're often intentionally demanding, which is to say rituals are often complicated and to execute them we have to focus on the individual parts of performing those rituals and that can take our attention away momentarily from the chatter we're experiencing and give us a bit of distraction. And so that's another pathway through which rituals can help.

Shankar Vedantam: And of course, we see these rituals, not just in the context of religion, we see this in sports all the time. You tell the story of the Australian swimmer, Stephanie Rice. Before every race she swings her arms eight times, presses her goggles four times, touches her cap four times. I mean, it does sound religious, but clearly it's just about sports performance.

Ethan Kross: Yeah. So there's research which has shown that you can give people arbitrary rituals to engage in, clap their hands three times, spin around in their seat twice and then tap their head and engaging in those kinds of non-religious rituals can be beneficial as well. Probably the most famous athlete who's known for doing rituals is Rafael Nadal. Several years ago, a journalist asked Nadal, "What's the hardest thing you struggle with on the tennis court?" And his answer surprised a lot of people because he didn't say, "The hardest thing I do is making sure I keep my serve in check or return my opponent's backhand," instead he says, "The hardest thing I struggle with is to battle the voice inside my head." The hardest thing he struggles with is his chatter on the court.

And if you watch Nadal play, you will see his solution for managing that chatter. He engages in elaborate rituals from the time he enters the court to before every single serve, he has specific rituals that he engages in. And when he's been asked, "Well, why do you do these wacky rituals?" He says, and I quote, "These rituals are a way of ordering my mind, providing the order I seek in a match."

Shankar Vedantam: I understand that you have some rituals of your own to combat your inner chatter before giving a big speech?

Ethan Kross: I do. I will pound a fist into my hand two or three times. I will give myself a little mini, very brief, distanced self-talk pep talk, "Come on, man. You've got this." And if it's a really, really high-stakes event, I've been known to do a few push ups right before showtime as well.

Shankar Vedantam: We started this conversation by having you tell me about your experience as a young undergrad at Penn who was dealing with setbacks when you first got to college. One of the people you reached out to for help at that time was your dad and it turns out that your dad played a really formative role, not just in helping you while you were at Penn, but in some ways, helping you think about the whole idea of introspection more generally. I'm wondering if you can tell me a little bit about your dad and the connection between his insights and the work that you've been doing these last several decades?

Ethan Kross: One of the interesting aha's I had was that although I had been researching chatter and how to manage it for about 20 years, I'd been thinking about it for close to 40. The reason for that is I had an unconventional dad. My dad was someone who, on the one hand, loved watching the New York Yankees and driving aggressively on the streets of Brooklyn and chain smoking Brooklyn bushy mustache kind of guy, but when he wasn't doing all those things, he was reading Eastern philosophy and the Bhagavad Gita and meditating. And when he wasn't doing those things, he was talking to me as a three year old about what he was learning about. He wasn't a college grad or this wasn't... he wasn't a professor, by the way, this was just a hobby that he had, he was fascinated by the mind and our ability to manage it.

And the message that he conveyed to me from the time I was a little kid was whenever something is going wrong, turn your attention inward and try to work through the situation. The way he said that to me was he'd give me this corny phrase, "Go inside, find the kernel of truth," he would say. That was a message that he just conveyed to me over and over from the time I was a little kid and it was a tool that I, as a result, relied on throughout my childhood and adolescence. So I'd get into an argument or I ask a girl out, they'd say no, I'd go inside to introspect, try to work through, figure out why this happened, come up with a solution and move on.

And then I got to Penn, I experienced some of my own chatter. And then I ended up taking a psychology class and I learned in that class that lots of people do exactly what my dad had told me to do when they struggle with something and they benefit as a result. This ability to introspect was a remarkable tool. But, in some cases, that tool failed lots of people as well and discovering that puzzle, "Why is it that we have this tool? Sometimes it helps, other times it hurts us." That became a passion of mine that I've been trying to solve ever since.

Shankar Vedantam: Ethan Kross is a psychologist at the University of Michigan. He's the author of the book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters and How to Harness it. Ethan, thank you for talking to me today on Hidden Brain.

Ethan Kross: Thanks so much for having me, Shankar. It was a pleasure.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is Marty Bonifant. Marty is a small business benefits consultant with Howard W. Phillips and Company. He's in Washington, DC. He was really helpful when we recently had to explore health insurance options for our company. Marty was responsive, friendly, and knew how to clearly explain jargony topics to non-experts. We really appreciate your help, Marty. Next week, we continue our You 2.0 series with a look at how we make decisions. We usually think that we know what's best for ourselves, but very often that is not true.

Tim Wilson: It's just fascinating how easily people can convince themselves that they know what they're doing, even when we know they don't.

Shankar Vedantam: Next week, we'll explore a better way. If you are a fan of the show, if you feel we have given you ideas that have been useful in your life, please help us make more episodes like this. Go to Again, that's and show us you have our back. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you soon.


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