Editor's note: This story was updated on February 20, 2018.
Talking out loud to yourself may draw some questioning looks, but research shows that "self-talk" can help you motivate yourself and even speed up your cognition, Kristin Wong writes for the New York Times.
The technical term for talking aloud to yourself is "external self-talk," Wong writes. The most types are "motivational self-talk"—such as telling yourself, "I can do this"—and "instructional self-talk," such as describing a task out loud to yourself.
Motivational self-talk may be 'corny,' but it works, research says
According to Wong, "It might be corny, but motivating yourself out loud can work." For instance, she cites a study that found when basketball players self-motivated themselves while making a pass, they passed the ball more quickly.
Even a small detail as how you refer to yourself can affect your performance, Wong writes. Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, and colleagues assessed how "internal self-talk"—that is, silently speaking to yourself—influenced attitude. According to the study, people who referred to themselves inside their own heads in the second or third person, rather than the first person, felt less anxiety about a public performance, and their peers rated their performances more highly.
It all comes down to self-distancing, Kross said: seeing yourself in the way a third party would. As he puts it, it's often easier for us to counsel a friend or loved one than it is to counsel ourselves. By using self-distancing language, we can "gain distance from our own experiences when we're reflecting on our lives."
How instructional self-talk can speed up your brain
Further, "talking to yourself out loud in an instructional way can speed up cognitive abilities in relation to problem-solving and task performance," Wong writes.
One way this works is through the "feedback hypothesis," which holds that hearing the name of an object makes it easier to identify that object. In one study, Gary Lupyan, a researcher and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his team asked participants to, for instance, identify the picture of a banana amid a group of random images. The researchers found that when the participants said the word "banana" out loud, the banana image stood out to them more readily.
Of course, if you don't know what a banana looks like, you aren't going to speed up your search for one by saying the word aloud—and in fact, doing so could slow you down. "The finding was that saying a name out loud helps, but only with objects they have familiarity with," Lupyan said.
The best moments to talk to yourself
Overall, Wong writes, research suggests that motivational self-talk is most helpful for "tasks based on speed, strength, and power," while instructional self-talk works "best with tasks that involved focus, strategy, and technique"—such as fitting into a tight parking space or constructing furniture from Ikea.
Lupyan agrees: "My bet is that self-talk works best on problems where you're trying to stay on task and there are possible distractions," he said. "For tasks with a multistep sequence, talking to yourself out loud can help you keep out distractions and remind yourself where you are" (Wong, New York Times, 6/8).
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