David Robson, a science writer and author of ‘The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life’, says that ‘illeism’ is a proven technique which has proven to be very useful for him. So, what is illeism?
“…illeism is the practice of talking about oneself in the third person, rather than the first person. The rhetorical device is often used by politicians to try to give their words an air of objectivity. In his account of the Gallic War, for example, the emperor Julius Caesar wrote “Caesar avenged the public” rather than “I avenged the public”. The small linguistic switch seems intended to make the statement feel a little more like historical fact, recorded by an impartial observer
To the modern ear, illeism can sound a little silly or pompous – and we may even deride famous people who choose to talk in this way. Yet recent psychological research suggests that illeism can bring some real cognitive benefits. If we are trying to make a difficult decision, speaking about ourselves in the third person can help to neutralise the emotions that could lead our thinking astray, allowing us to find a wiser solution to our problem.”
So why does illeism work? Why is it useful? Mr Robson has an interesting answer: “The scientific study of wisdom has been spear-headed by Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Grossmann first drew on the work of numerous philosophers to decide on a series of “metacognitive components” – including intellectual humility, acknowledgement of others’ viewpoints and search for compromise – that are commonly considered to be essential for wise decision making.
In one of his first studies, Grossmann asked participants to think out loud about their responses to various dilemmas – such as personal problems posed to the Dear Abby “agony aunt” column – while independent psychologists rated their spoken responses according to these criteria. Grossmann found that these tests of wise reasoning were better than IQ tests at predicting people’s overall life satisfaction and the quality of their social relationships. This suggested the studies were capturing something unique about their reasoning skills.
Grossmann’s later studies revealed that the wisdom of people’s reasoning can depend on the context. In particular, he found that their wise reasoning scores tended to be much higher when considering other people’s situations than their own personal dilemmas. Grossmann called this “Solomon’s Paradox” after the ancient Biblical king, who was famous for advising others wisely, while making a series of disastrous personal decisions that ultimately left his kingdom in chaos.
The problem seems to be that when making personal choices, we become too immersed in our emotions, which cloud our thinking and prevent us from putting our issues in perspective. If I have received negative feedback from a colleague, for example, my feeling of embarrassment might lead me to become overly self-defensive. I might therefore dismiss their opinions without considering whether their advice could be helpful in the long-term…
Could illeism resolve Solomon’s paradox? The idea makes intuitive sense: by switching to the third person, our descriptions of the situation will start to sound as if we are talking about someone else rather than ourselves. This sense of detachment would allow us to see the bigger picture, rather than getting caught up in our own feelings.”
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