Referring to Yourself in the Third Person Might Be a Good Thing

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Speaking of yourself in the third person is the height of pretension, right? Donald Trump, for instance, is often criticized or mocked for the practice. Forbes suggested that substituting the third person for the first was something done by “gaslighters/narcissists.” J.K. Rowling trolled the president on Twitter for using what she called “the third Trumperson,” and she has 14.6 million followers. This puts her in good company — these are the most influential women of the 21st century.

The second most famous user of the third person for self-reference after Trump is probably Elmo, from “Sesame Street,” who is said to talk that way to make his character more accessible to toddlers. “Sesame Street” was one of the most beloved children’s shows of all time, but some programs are even more fondly remembered. These are the most loved kids’ shows of all time.

But the critics and the mockers might want to think twice about third-person references. A new study suggests that illeism, as the practice of referring to yourself in the third person is called, might bring long-term benefits to thinking and the regulation of emotions. (The term — from the Latin “ille,” meaning “he” — was coined in 1809 by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.)

According to a preprint (a research paper published before peer review) in the journal PsyArXiv, participants in the study who adopted the third person when describing their most significant daily experiences showed noticeable improvement after a month’s time in what the study calls wisdom-related characteristics.

The paper, called Training for Wisdom: The Illeist Diary Method, investigated the effectiveness of illeism in enhancing the subjects’ abilities in so-called wise-reasoning (intellectual humility, open-mindedness to the ways a situation might unfold, perspective taking, and attempts to integrate different points of view) and in the accuracy of emotional forecasts — predictions of one’s emotional state — towards people they are close to.

“Participants…showed greater alignment of forecasts and experiences, largely due to changes in their emotional experience,” according to the study, which was directed by psychologist Igor Grossmann of the University of Waterloo in Canada.

An article on illeism in the digital magazine Aeon, published in association with the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, science journalist David Robson offers an example of how the process might work. In considering an argument he’d had with a friend, he suggests, thinking silently “David felt frustrated that…” might offer a “small change in perspective [that] can clear your emotional fog, allowing you to see past your biases.”

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