Struggling to power through a workout? Can’t help a fifth trip to the fridge? A study suggests talking to ourselves in the second person may aid willpower and self-control.

The Study

A team of social psychologists led by University of North Carolina’s Ethan Zell asked three groups of college-age men and women to jot down what they imagined they’d say to themselves (in their heads) in different situations. One group imagined negative and positive scenarios (being boo’d at a karaoke bar v. being applauded). Another group imagined making decisions and being told what to do (opting to order zucchini v. being forced to). The third group thought about different stages of planning for, attending, and reflecting on an event. Participants used more second-person statements when envisioning themselves in negative situations, making decisions, and participating in an event (as opposed to planning or reflecting). First-person use cropped up more when participants saw themselves in positive scenarios, gearing up for and analyzing events, and being told what to do. Talking to yourself as if you were someone else may boost self-control in some situations by “dividing that self into commander and doer,” Zell says.

Can We Trust It?

Other research suggests that self-talk can also bolster intellectual ability as well as athletic performance Motivating goal-directed behavior through introspective self-talk: the role of interrogative form of simple future tense. Senay, I, Albarracin, D., Noguchi, K. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Department of Psychology, Champaign, IL. Psychological Science 2010; 21(4):499-504.. Still, Zell cautions that not all self-talk has a positive outcome. Negative self-talk—you suck!—can actually hinder athletic performance Effects of self-talk: a systematic review. Tod, D., Hardy, J., Oliver, E. Sport and Exercise Science, Aberystwyth University, Ceredigion, United Kingdom. Journal of Exercise and Sports Psychology, 2011 Oct;33(5):666-87.. And people with low self-esteem, for instance, tend to feel worse when they repeat affirmations like “I’m a lovable person.” Researchers say that’s probably because they feel like they’re falling short of how people expect them to feel Positive self-statements: power for some, peril for others. Wood, J.V., Perunovic, W.Q., Lee, J.W. Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, Ontario. Psychological Science, 2009 Jul;20(7):860-6.. Zell’s research doesn’t prove that “you” statements boost self-control more than “I” ones. But sometimes mumbling to ourselves might just be the motivation we need. So next time you're in need of a little extra push in the right direction, say to yourself what you’d say to motivate another person. Let us know how it goes!

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