On this episode of the Sonya Looney Show, Ethan Kross, one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind, best-selling author and a professor in the University of Michigan’s Psychology Department and Ross School of Business, talks self-talk and his book, Chatter.
Kross studies how the conversations people have with themselves impact their health, performance, decisions and relationships. In 2008, he founded the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan.
As a leading expert in this field, Kross has been published in many peer-reviewed journals and has been interviewed on several major news shows, including CBS Evening News, Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper Full Circle, and NPR’s Morning Edition. His work has also been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and more.
In this episode, you’ll hear more about his lab, emotion, mindfulness, and problem solving. You’ll also learn more about his book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters and How to Harness It, which interweaves groundbreaking behavioral and brain research with real-world examples to explain how conversations we have with ourselves shape our lives, and gives us the power to shape them.
“One thing you can do is called distant self talk. Try to coach yourself through a problem like you would give advice to a friend and actually use your own name and the second person pronoun “you” to do that… The idea here is that we know it’s much easier to give advice to other people than it is to take our own advice. It’s always shocking to me when I hear about the kinds of things people think to themselves in the first person… We would never say those things to our friends who come to us for advice. A lot of people I talk to about these issues, not only do they tell me they’d never say that to a friend, sometimes they don’t even feel comfortable verbalizing what they say to themself. They’re embarrassed to reveal the dark things that they think. So the idea here is that we can use language to help shift our perspective, to help us think about ourselves and advise ourselves like we’re a coach to someone else.”Ethan Kross
- Emotion & Self Control Laboratory
- Self-control vs. willpower
- What is an emotion?
- Creating physical distance
- Where mindfulness doesn’t work and reframing is better
- Problem solving vs. overthinking
- Negative self-talk vs. chatter
- Sleep and chatter
- Check out Ethan Kross’s book Chatter
- Liked this episode? Listen to other episodes about mindset, motivation, and psychology
- Check out my Mindset Academy
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Sonya Looney: Dr. Kross, I’d love to hear about your lab.
Dr. Ethan Kross: Well, I run a lab called the Emotion and Self Control Lab at the University of Michigan. And fundamentally what we study is what we call the science of self-control and the way I define self-control is our ability to align our thoughts, feelings, or behaviors with our goals. So it really is, in a more simple sense, it’s about, look, there are things you want to do, ways you want to feel, behaviors you want to engage in, and how do we make those happen? Like, what’s the science behind that? And we tackle those issues from lots of different perspectives. We study the brain, we study kids, we study adults, we look at people’s behavior as they live their lives, like doing studies using people’s smartphones. And we also bring people into the lab and do experiments. So we have a lot of fun. And we learn stuff in the process.
Sonya: That sounds like the best job ever because you get to just get in people’s inner worlds and learn so much. I’m so passionate about human behavior and helping people shift their behavior, and just how much control we actually have over our experience.
Dr. Kross: Well, it’s a job that I certainly like. It’s fun most of the time there definitely, not always but most of the time. I think for me, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s engaging and fun. I’ve got two little kids and they’re actively navigating the world and beginning to wonder what I’ll do when I grow up and the best advice I can give them is to find something that doesn’t feel like work, something that’s engaging where hopefully you can also help people with whatever you do. That’s the message I convey. But back to this issue that you’re really intrigued about which I am too about helping people figure out what they can control and giving them tools to do that, one, I think really important distinction that I’ve benefited from, and I think people have too is if we’re thinking about like people’s mental life, the thoughts popping through their head, we often don’t have control over the thoughts that pop up in our head at any given moment in time. So I know you’re a cyclist, am I using the right professional term, is there a distinction I should be using?
Sonya: That’s great.
Dr. Kross: Okay, you’re on the bike, and I’m sure thoughts pop up in your head all the time sometimes are things that you haven’t thought about in a while. We don’t have control over the thoughts that pop into our head. I’ve been studying the mind for a really long time, I haven’t come across any research that speaks to that issue. What we do have control over is how we manage those thoughts once they pop up. And I think just knowing that can be really, really empowering for people. I remember one time I was teaching a class on the science of self control to undergraduates here at Michigan. And we were talking about this issue, like when people are showing that they have self control versus not, and we’re talking about a case where you just you have a temptation to like eat a cookie after 8pm, but you don’t follow through with it. And some students thought oh, yeah, they exercise self control, and others seems like no, they had the thought. And if you have the thought that means you failed. And my response to those students was, you’re setting a really high bar for being successful at managing yourself, if you’re setting the bar at being able to control what pops into your head, because I don’t think that is a controllable thing.
Sonya: Thanks for identifying that distinction. And another distinction I wanted to ask you about is the difference between self control and willpower.
Dr. Kross: Well, willpower is often used, well, it’s defined in lots of different ways. The way I think about willpower is this idea that we can just muscle through a challenge that we’re faced with, a self control challenge. And I use the term of self control to refer to this broad idea of, you’ve got some goals, right things you want to get out of this experience in the world. How do you follow through with those goals with respect to your thoughts, your feelings and your behaviors? And the idea is willpower is that there’s this there’s this resource somewhere in the mind that allows you to do that. And by and large, the research in this area hasn’t shown that just telling a person to muscle through a challenge is really that effective. Instead, there are specific ways of thinking about issues or specific behaviors you can engage in that are a lot more effective than just this kind of like brute force approach of push it through. I should qualify that description; some people use the term self control and willpower synonymously that’s not how it tends to be used in the research landscape.
Sonya: And the next question I have for you is how to define emotions, because I’m not even sure if you can actually control the emotion coming in, just like a thought coming in, but maybe you can control your response to that emotion?
Dr. Kross: Well, an emotion is like a coordinated response to a particular circumstance that you’re experiencing. And that circumstance could be an objective circumstance that you encounter in the world, like you’re driving and someone flips you off. That may have happened to me earlier today. I promise I didn’t do anything wrong; they were just in a bad mood. Or it could be a circumstance that you conjure up in your head, like when you imagine something that you’re really afraid of. There’s a profile, there’s a physiological component to that emotional experience. There’s a thinking or a cognitive component to it. And also, this kind of experiential component, like how we feel. There are certain ways of thinking about the world, certain appraisals, that can give rise to different kinds of emotions. And there’s a lot of debate about, there are different ideas about what the different appraisals are that give rise to different emotions. But take fear – fear tends to happen when we’re uncertain about something that you know, may have implications for our, for our welfare. So the way we think can certainly impact how we feel about things.
Sonya: An example that I have in mind that happened to me recently was something very stressful came up around, we just bought a new home and something came up, and I immediately felt the fear and the stress response. But mentally I was able to compartmentalize it to be like, it’s going to be okay. Or the worst case isn’t going to happen. And I was able to use my breath, but I could still feel a heaviness in my body. So it felt like that there was some sort of disconnect between what my mind was doing what my body was doing.
Dr. Kross: Well, there can be those disconnects that occur, but also the speed with which your body catches up with your mind. Like, they’re not always in total sync in the sense that, when we interpret a situation in a particular way, let’s say as a threat, that activates this cascade of biochemical reactions that are designed to help you mobilize for that threat. And that’s a sledgehammer approach to getting you ready. So you’re flooded with these different neuro chemicals that are then having implications for your body, cortisol goes up, and so forth. And it can take a bit of time for that to wash out of your experience. I mean, I know there are times where I’ve been stressed and let’s say I’m appraising something, it’s a really stressful experience, instantly, it’s my stomach, that’s the physiological corollary for me. I’m in the toilet, my appetite goes down. And even if I can get a hold of that, if I can rein in that fear response relatively quickly, at a cognitive level, it can take some time for my body to normalize, because it’s just been flooded by these different chemicals, so that makes sense.
Sonya: I love how we’ve started this, because I think it’s been pretty interesting so far to talk about self control and emotion. But then now underlying it all is your inner narrative and the stories that you tell yourself. So you wrote this book, Chatter, which I think is a phenomenal book, and it has very real world and applicable examples of how to improve your self talk from the things that you can do internally to the things you could do in your environment. So the first thing I really wanted to ask you about was creating physical distance from yourself.
Dr. Kross: Well, when we get stuck in experiencing chatter, which I define as getting stuck in a negative thought loop, so you’re ruminating about the past, you’re worried about the future, the idea is you’re experiencing some type of adversity, and you focus your attention inward, to try to make sense of it. And you use language to try to do that, why am I feeling this way? What if this happens? But you don’t come up with a solution, and you said, you just get stuck in ways that to use the technical term can make you miserable. And so one antidote to that, one kind of tool that can be useful, are distancing tools. When we get stuck experiencing that chatter, what we tend to do is we zoom in very narrowly on the problem at hand, we get tunnel vision, like, oh my god, what if this happens, or why did I say that. And when we zoom in in that way, we often lose sight of the bigger picture and alternative ways of making sense of the circumstances that might actually make us feel better. And so what we’ve learned over the years is that there are a lot of distancing tools ways of “taking a step back” and thinking about our experience more objectively, from a psychologically removed perspective, that can be really helpful for helping us get unstuck, get out of chatter, and helping us move on with our lives. And so a few common distancing tools I talk about in the book, one thing you can do is something called distance self talk. So try to coach yourself through a problem like you would give advice to a friend and actually use your own name and the second person pronoun “you” to do that. Though, if you use this tool, my advice is to do it silently, not out loud. That can elicit some eye rolls. But the idea here is that we know that it’s much easier for us to give advice to other people than it is for us to take our own advice. It’s always shocking to me when I hear about the kinds of things that people think to themselves in the first person, oh my god, what if I screw up, I suck. Like, we would never say those things to our friends who come to us for advice. A lot of people who I talk to about these issues, not only do they tell me they would never say to a friend, sometimes they don’t even feel comfortable verbalizing what they say to themselves. They’re embarrassed to reveal the dark things that they think. And so the idea here is that we can use language to help shift our perspective, to help us think about ourselves and advise ourselves like we were a coach to someone else. If you think about the situations in which we use names, we usually use names when we think about other people. So the idea is, if you use your name to think about yourself, it’s shifting you automatically into coach mode already if and here’s how you’re going to manage a situation. So that’s one distancing tool you can use. Another tool that’s useful for helping people deal with acute stressors is something called temporal distancing, or mental time travel. And so what this involves is imagining how you’re going to feel about something really stressful a day or a week or a year from now. When you’re dealing with an acute stressor, something that will eventually end, what doing this does is it makes it clear that as awful as what you’re experiencing is, it will eventually pass. And that gives us hope. And that that can be a balm for our inner voice. So, if I’m stressed out about a presentation, I have to give off and remind myself, well, how are you going to feel about this a week from now, or two weeks from now. Lots of other things are going to happen in between, and you always come back to normal, so it’ll be fine. That takes the edge off in ways that can be useful. So those are two types of distancing tools. There are probably close to a dozen more other ones that I talk about the book, and their little ways of shifting your perspective, that can make a difference when you’re mired in chatter.
Sonya: You mentioned using you or using your name will help give you perspective, because that’s how you would talk to somebody else. But why, specifically, does that work in that way?
Dr. Kross: Well, what it’s doing is, if you look at the brain, and we’ve done some research on this, it reduces activation in a group of brain regions that are involved in reflecting on the self that become increasingly activated when we are consumed or immersed in a situation. Thinking about the self, neural hardware if you will, is a little bit less activated. And we think that makes it much easier for people to reason. So let me just say one more thing about why this works. And so, language we think is a really useful tool, because if you think about when you use names, in the word “you,” most of the time that we use those parts of speech, and when we think about and refer to other people, so there’s a very tight association between names and others. So the idea here is that when you use your own name, that’s activating the mindset of thinking about others. So it’s language is automatically putting you into this thinking about others coach mode, which makes it much easier for you to follow through with that script.
Sonya: And in terms of the mental time travel piece, where you are trying to ask yourself, how am I going to feel about this tomorrow, in a year, it requires an ability to be honest with yourself, and an ability to pull yourself out of the emotion. Because if you’re stuck in emotion, it might be hard to say, yeah, it’s going to be better or different in a year. So how do you reconcile with the fact that some people can’t be honest with themselves or get so stuck in the emotion part?
Dr. Kross: I have two responses to that, specifically about the mental time travel, right? So the first thing to keep in mind is that a lot of the times when people engage in these strategies, they’re doing it because they’re motivated to feel better. And so they’re looking for solutions to improve their mood. And so this is one way of opening up an alternative way, thinking about something that is plausible, that might feel better. So for COVID, for example, this is a tool that I personally benefited from, and a lot of the people I spoke with did as well. COVID was awful, still is. But by all accounts, there was a finish line in sight, right? And so that was something that people could anchor on like, yes, awful as it is, six months a year from now, things will be better. There are some kinds of issues that are don’t have a clear finish line. So you know, people dealing with like chronic poverty or homelessness, it’s not clear that things will get better. And that’s an instance where I wouldn’t use this tool. One theme of the book, and also a theme of my research, is that there are no single magic pills, no one size fits all solutions, one tool works in all situations for all people. And so what we’ve learned is that we have this elaborate toolbox of tools that exist, right, I think that there are 26 or so I talk about in the book. And the idea is that what we need to do, both as a science but also as people, is figure out what are the specific combinations of tools that work best for us, given the unique challenges that we face. And so if you’re struggling with something and you tried temporal distancing and it doesn’t work, you want to pivot and shift to a different tool. I think there are different combinations of tools that work in different situations for different people.
Sonya: Yeah, and something that I’ve been asking a lot of people because I’ve had some other psychologists on the show, and also some very experienced meditation teachers, is that a meditation or mindfulness practice, it helps you become aware that you’re thinking or what you’re thinking about. But mindfulness practice is really about just letting it go and living in the present moment and not about reframing. And there are certain studies out there that use a mindfulness-based practice instead of a reframing cognitive behavioral therapy practice. I think in the UK to treat depression, they use a mindfulness-based practice over cognitive behavioral therapy. So in your research, where has this come up, if at all?
Dr. Kross: Well, I think you’re right about mindfulness practices, being focused more on making people aware of how their mind works with respect to thoughts, and allowing things to be let go. I think mindfulness is one tool that you want to have in your toolbox amidst many others. There are some circumstances under which simply becoming aware that you’re experiencing chatter and then letting it go, refocusing on the present, that might work really well. There are other circumstances under which reframing your experiences may be particularly useful. If it’s a recurring event, one that you need to confront the issue again in the future. So I don’t think of the distancing tool, mindfulness involves distancing to a certain degree, but it’s almost like you step back and then once you step back, you can choose what to do, you can choose to just accept and let go, you can choose to engage and reframe. You could choose to just avoid and not think about it. And there may be different times and places when you want to engage in those different practices. I think there is the one idea that I do react to is that you want to do only one of those things all the time. I don’t think we have any evidence to support that idea that you should only use mindfulness, you should only use reframe tools. I think we’re putting people in a much better position to achieve their goals and be happy by giving them access to the full suite of tools than just one or the other. The last thing I would say is that, the book deals mostly with the ordinary problems of living that we all face, not the kinds of clinical issues that put people in the terrain of mental illness. But if we do dip into that literature, what we do see is it’s not just mindfulness and meditation that tends to be working. It’s mindfulness-based CT – cognitive therapy. So there is an amalgamation of these approaches, even at that upper end of the spectrum as well.
Sonya: Yeah, thanks for pointing that part out. Something else that I wanted to ask you about was overthinking because sometimes we think we’re problem solving, but then we end up overthinking and ruminating even more about it. Where’s the healthy line with thinking for problem solving? And when do you know when you’re overthinking?
Dr. Kross: So I think with Chatter is the overthinking, and, I like to tell people, there’s nothing wrong with experiencing negative emotion or thinking negative thoughts. And I think part of this toxic positivity movement that has swept the nation and other nations over the past few years is that we should try to rid ourselves have any negative experiences. This would not be a good thing. We’ve evolved to experience negative emotions for really good reasons. They serve a function. They’re useful because they are unpleasant states, right? So if I experienced anxiety before a presentation, that’s a good thing, and motivates me to prepare. There are studies which show that anxiety before a performance like actually enhances performance, as long as it’s not overwhelming. And there’s similarly, you can make similar cases for other negative emotions, like sadness and anger, too. They can be functional in small doses. When they become harmful is when we start experiencing chatter or overthinking. And really, the subjective experience that accompanies those states is one of being stuck, you’re focusing on a problem, but you’re not making any progress, you’re not solving it, and you can’t stop thinking about it. So sometimes when I’m working on a new paper, or a chapter in a book, I’ll be working on it and trying to make connections and things, it doesn’t always flow smoothly. What I’ll often do, though, is I’ll really try to work on it for a couple hours and then I’ll put it aside, and I’ll come back to it the next day. And I have a solution. Right? So I’m making progress there. That’s different from oh my god, what am I going to do? I don’t know, what should I do? What do I… and where you’re just spinning over and over and not making any progress? And it feels like you can’t stop thinking about it because you want to solve the problem. That’s overthinking. That’s what chatter is. And it’s not a good thing.
Sonya: So when you start making progress, it’s better to just put it aside if you can, and trust that maybe the next day, your brain will weave through and come out the other side with a solution.
Dr. Kross: Yeah, well, that’s certainly one approach and another one would be to avail yourself of some of the other ways of dealing with it, like think about it from a different perspective distance yourself. Talk to someone else whose opinion you value and may be able to shed light on it in some way. So there are lots of things you could do to get unstuck once you’re stuck. The first step, though, is recognizing that you’re stuck in the first place. I think there’s a lot of value in just understanding what chatter is, what overthinking is, because a lot of people, they only recognize that they’re falling down the rabbit hole once they’re really, really in it. And I think that the quicker we can realize that we’re succumbing to chatter, the sooner we can take action to prevent it from really spiraling.
Sonya: And I’m going to move along here a little bit, you mentioned talking to others. And there are some things in the book that I learned that I’d never heard before and one of them was about co-rumination, can you talk about co-rumination and where it’s appropriate to do that, and where it’s not going to be helpful?
Dr. Kross: Sure. So a lot of us think that when we experience chatter, we should turn to others to vent our emotions. And just express what we’re feeling. Let it all out. There’s been a lot of research on this. And what we’ve learned is that venting our emotions to someone else, that can feel good in the moment and strengthen the friendship bonds that we share with other people, but it doesn’t really help us manage our chatter. In fact, it can sometimes make it worse, right? So when you’re talking to someone else, you’re just venting, or in technical terms, experiencing co-rumination, you’re ruminating together about something. Right? It feels good, because the person you’re talking to, they’re taking the time to listen, they really get you, they’re empathizing, they’re validating what you went through. Oh my god, you’ve that sounds awful. Really? I can’t believe they said that. What a jerk.
Sonya: I can’t believe someone flipped you off this morning.
Dr. Kross: That’s right, can you believe it. And so what happens is you feel great about your relationship super tight, but you leave that conversation, just as angry or anxious or sad as you were when you started, if not more, because all you’ve done is reactivate the negative stuff in your head. So the best kinds of conversations when it comes to chatter actually do two things. First, you do give the other person an opportunity to express what they felt to a certain degree. It is important to connect emotionally with the other person, and they need to learn what you went through. But a certain point in the conversation, they ideally nudge you to think about the experience from a different perspective. In a certain sense, the other person you’re talking to is in a perfect position to help broaden your perspective. So they flipped you off, but you know what, there’s more to life than getting flipped off. Right? You got all these things going on today. And I’ve gotten tripped off tons of times big deal, you don’t want to engage with them, blah, blah, blah. So essentially, the ideal is that the person you’re going to for support, for advice, they listen, they hear, they validate, but at a certain point in the conversation, they help broaden your perspective. Now, there is an art to doing this. And I say art because depending on the situation and the person, some people may need to spend more time venting, before they’re ready to shift into this kind of prospective broadening phase of a conversation. And so if you’re the one in the position to give the support, you want to be sensitive to this and fill it out, right. And sometimes maybe even ask explicitly, hey, I totally get it sounds awful, can I tell you what I would do in this situation? Or have you thought about this other way of thinking about? Are you ready to start talking about it? And so there’s a little bit of finesse that I think is needed there. But I think knowing about these principles can be really useful for people because it can let people be a lot more deliberate, both with respect to who they go to, to obtain support when they’re experiencing chatter. So there’s some people in my life who I love a lot, and they love me, and I don’t go to them talk about my chatter, because I know they’re just going to get me to vent, it’s going to get worse. Then there are other people out there who are really skilled and not just connecting with me, but helping me and those are the people I consult. So I can be really careful about thinking about who I go to. I’m not doing it haphazardly. I’m being strategic. And on the flip side, when people come to me for support, I can be a lot more deliberate about how I try to help them.
Sonya: Yeah, I’ve been trying to work on how I offer support and how I help people because I tend to be a fixer, like someone comes with, oh, this happened and I just want to fix it. But there also is that space that you said to let them talk about how they felt. But then in your book, you also talked about a way to help others that doesn’t undermine their self-efficacy. So how do you help somebody get through a problem or help somebody with a stressful situation without being too much of a fixer or without undermining their self-efficacy?
Dr. Kross: I’m glad you brought this up because as you suggest, there is a danger in offering support, particularly when it’s not asked for. So what I just described earlier about how to be a good chatter advisor, so listen, and then help run perspective, that pertains to situations where a person explicitly comes to you for help. There are going to be lots of instances in one’s life where you see someone who’s suffering, but they don’t actually ask you for help, right? So I see my kids a lot like they’re struggling with something at school, or something’s bothering them or their homework, and if I volunteer the support, boy, oh, boy, have I felt the wrath of that. Do you not think I know how to do this on my own? Did I ask you for help? You don’t think I can help you and blah, blah, blah, and then I get in trouble. And the reason that happens is, when you offer advice without it being asked for, you threaten a person’s sense of self efficacy, their sense of self-worth. Now, you can still help people in those situations and what it involves doing is helping them invisibly, this is called Invisible support in the research literature. And it involves easing their burden or getting them information, but without them really being aware of it. And there are lots of forms that this can take. So if my wife is dealing with a lot of stress at work and stuff at home, I can make her life a little bit easier by taking care of dinner, or picking up the dry cleaning, doing stuff around the house without being asked to do it. So she’s not saying, hey, I can’t do all these things I need your help. She does say that plenty, but in this instance, you know, she wouldn’t say that I would just do it voluntarily. And in so doing, I would ease her burden, make her life a little bit easier, and in ways that can really help, small things make a difference. Give you another example. Let’s say there’s someone in my team who’s really struggling with their presentation skills. They’re just not giving compelling presentations and, in my business, you need to be able to do that. There’s a risk of me volunteering, hey, you’re not cutting it, here’s what you need to do better. So instead of having that kind of direct intervention, as a first step, what I might do is send a few resources to the entire team and say, hey, I just came across these presentations on great public speaking. Check it out. Let’s discuss this as a group or, hey, there’s a talk on campus, why don’t we go attend and listen, seems relevant to everything what we do. I’m getting the person the information, but I’m not shining a spotlight on their own inadequacies. So those are invisible ways of helping that can be quite useful.
Sonya: How do you help your kids with their homework invisibly?
Dr. Kross: Well, with great, great care. How do I help them invisibly? I wait for them to ask me for help. And the other thing that I do is I try to create a context at home where they feel comfortable asking me stuff. And so not shining a spotlight on a particular assignment and saying, hey, do it this way. But rather, you know, you can always ask me questions, and I’m happy to answer them. I’m a teacher, I teach for a living. Never problem asking questions. And I think that kind of messaging has helped.
Sonya: And speaking of kids, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I just have a little guy. But when does he start self-referencing, because toddlers talk about themselves and the third person, you’re supposed to talk about yourself, and then the third person, but at a certain point, they start having their own inner narrative. So when does that start?
Dr. Kross: It’s a great question. Well, there’s some evidence that this kind of self-talk begins to emerge as early as 18 months, it could be earlier. That’s when something called the verbal working memory system begins to come online. But it’s typically older kids, where we see them actually talking to themselves, usually, interestingly enough, with their own names. So before they have this sense of self of I, me, my, it’s not uncommon for kids to repeat to themselves the way that they hear their parents and caretakers talking to them. What’s your son’s name?
Dr. Kross: Bradley, and how old is he?
Sonya: He is almost 15 months.
Dr. Kross: So you know, give it a little bit time. But I imagine, Bradley, you shouldn’t eat with your feet, it’s not good for you, and then he goes off and says, Bradley, you can’t eat with your feet, because then you can get sick and you need to eat with your hands and use a napkin. So you’ll hear, if you spend time around kids, you’ll often see them having conversations with themselves. And that’s how many psychologists think self control really begins, right? And it’s how socialization and the messages of our parents and cultures makes its way into our kids’ minds. They’re repeating what their parents have said to them. And eventually they start repeating those messages not externally but internally, but in certain senses how our parents’ voices get into our own heads.
Sonya: Yeah, something my husband and I have thought about a lot is because our son already understands so, so much. And the things that you say out loud to your partner maybe or just that they hear you saying about yourself, I’m concerned that they would internalize that. So if they hear you saying like, no, I’m not good at this, or I can’t do this or something like that, then they might adopt that type of narrative.
Dr. Kross: Well, there’s certainly links between parents’ cognitive states and kids. But it’s not what I would call deterministic in the sense that what they hear is, they’re destined to repeat the same narrative in their mind. Kids have agency in the same way that adults do, and can be quite creative about how they think about the world. So there’s not a one to one, boy, but can you imagine how easy parenting might be if their kid repeated what you said to that now, that would be great. The other thing to keep in mind with all this is that, for a while, we used to think that the messages of parents seeped into our kids’ heads. And that’s it just went in one direction. But what we’ve known for a couple of decades now is that it actually goes in both directions. So our narrative can affect our children’s narrative, but then our children do things like think, behave, and the way they behave in the world impacts how we think about ourselves. So it’s a dynamic, and it’s changing, and shifting. So it is a pretty complicated and evolving process. But there’s no question that parents play an outsized role in shaping how children think about themselves. And so for that reason, I think it’s important to be thinking about these issues.
Sonya: I can’t remember if you said this in your book, or in a podcast I heard you on, but you said you’re creating a course for younger people to start using some of these tools. Is that something you’re still working on? Or something that people can go find?
Dr. Kross: Yeah, so for the past several years, we’ve been working with teachers to take what we know about the science of self control and convert it into a middle school slash high school curriculum. We have these engaging lesson plans, about 14 of them, that teach kids about how self control works. And the idea is that learning this information should not only serve an academic function, but the idea is, hey, if you know how self control works, and you have reason to use some control in your life, you should be better off. So the curriculum is developed ad we were supposed to run a large experiment, large clinical trial evaluating it last fall, but COVID had other plans for us. So the project is on hold, but the plan is to is to run the study next winter. So coming soon, hopefully, to a journal near you.
Sonya: And there’s something interesting that I’ve heard people say, you know, when we’re trying to talk about having more positive self talk, or motivational or instructional self talk, but some people think that negative or harsh self talk is something that they need in order to maintain their edge like in business or in sports. What have you seen in that regard?
Dr. Kross: Well, there’s a difference between negative self talk and chatter. So chatter is that negative thought loop that you can’t get stopped thinking about where you’re feeling stagnated, like you’re not solving a problem. Sometimes, we’ve done experiments where we look at how people what they say to themselves before stressors, and sometimes, people can be pretty stern, muscle up, you can manage this, don’t be ridiculous, like saying stuff that’s pretty stern and aggressive, and it’s motivating to them. So when we’re helping people not experience chatter, it’s not that we’re changing the internal narrative to always be the verbal equivalent of hot cups of tea and warm cupcakes, right? Like, people aren’t always being super soothing with themselves. Sometimes they’re being pretty stern and I think that makes a great deal of sense because if we think about how we motivate other people in our lives, sometimes I have students where I’ve got to be stern with them to motivate them. And I think that’s fine. You know, where we see problems arising is when people get stuck. And so again, negative emotions serve a function. A little bit of anxiety can be incredibly motivating. And that’s not something we want to shy away from.
Sonya: But I think there’s a difference between stern and disparaging, like people that say, you’re an idiot, or you suck, or like you’re not worth anything versus you need to get this going.
Dr. Kross: There’s definitely a difference between the second example and the first in the sense that the first one is more motivating, I think, than just descriptive of how you feel. Oh man, I screwed up, you idiot. And then like, let’s say that’s the narrative and then you move on, and you don’t get stuck there, drawing attention to the fact that you messed up for a few seconds, if you then don’t wallow in that and move on, I don’t know that there’s something terribly wrong with it. Sometimes that’s a reality. And as long as you’re not getting stuck there, I think I think it’s probably okay. I think that the key here is really, are these thoughts serving you? Well? Do you feel like the internal narrative is standing in the way of allowing you to achieve your goals? If it is, that’s when you’ve got to intervene. But if you’ve got an internal narrative, that at times has a little bit of honest self-critique in there, and you’re living a great flourishing life, and you’re happy, then I think that’s totally fine, and not something that we need to fix.
Sonya: I am a health coach and I help people achieve their goals, like their health goals, specifically. But a big part of our practice is helping people speak out loud, so that they hear themselves say the things that they want, and using reflections and powerful questions and motivational interviewing. So in your lab, have you come across, the difference between writing something down or thinking it versus saying it out loud, and the impact that that has?
Dr. Kross: There’s research on this. And basically, when you write about your feelings, and write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about something that serves a distancing function, right, because you’re writing about yourself, and you’re becoming the target of your story. So in a certain sense, you’re the character in the story. And you’re weaving the story about that character. So there’s a distancing function that can be useful. It can be harder to do that, in our minds, where we just pinball back and forth in our thinking in a more disorganized way. There are ways of helping us think more constructively in our heads, like we talked about earlier, with distant self-talk, temporal distancing, and some other tools. But our default way of thinking about our problems, often leads us into that disorganized pattern of thinking. There’s less talk on talking out loud, interestingly enough. I reviewed this literature a few years ago, there wasn’t a ton of work on it. But there is one great study which shows how it compares talking about your problems to writing about them to thinking about them. Both talking and writing were equivalently helpful, and better than just thinking on your own, which led to a more ruminative state.
Sonya: And in terms of creating this distance, in sports, and basically in anything, you can use visualization practices to think about what you want. And, as a cyclist you can envision yourself in a race or doing something technical on the mountain bike from your own vision or from a bird’s eye view, or slowing it down or speeding it up. So does that work the same way, the visualization process works the same way as creating the distance in the self talk and the chatter?
Dr. Kross: It does. What we know is that when you’re in your first-person point of view, that tends to heat things up and make them more emotional. And when you’re in the bird’s eye view, fly in the wall perspective, it tends to cool things down and make you more objective. Interestingly enough, there’s also research that shows it goes in the opposite way. So if you ask people to recall really intense emotional experiences versus not intense ones, you’re more likely to be in the immerse point of view through your eyes when you’re recalling something really intense. So that’s another channel through which you can achieve distance through the visual element.
Sonya: And what about just being in the zone, or having that sense of flow versus I think in mountain biking, a lot of times when people are struggling on technical terrain, due to fatigue, it’s a neurological fatigue, like the brain just can’t process any more decisions on technical terrain. So how does the being in the zone piece relate to your inner narrative? Is there no narrative? Is it all positive?
Dr. Kross: Yeah, I mean, it’s no narrative, you want to shut that commentary off when you’re in the zone, in flow mode. And in fact, in sports, a lot of the time, the way that the inner voice gets in the way is when you’re trying to execute really complex behaviors that consist of multiple component parts, right? Like, in the cycling world, I would imagine that has to do with shifting gears and weight and probably leaving out visually and other important… looking ahead and taking into account the typography. Your ability to do that well, is based on your experiences, doing it thousands of times beforehand, right. Like because you have practiced so much, you don’t have to think about how all these individual behaviors come together. They’re chunked together, they’re grouped in a way that makes you a professional cyclist, like you optimized it. And so what you don’t want to start doing when you’re on the mountain is you don’t want to start individually scrutinizing each one of those behaviors. Once you do that, it all unravels. So instead, you want to let that script just go on autopilot, and you want to be totally in flow, not thinking about things. The place for your inner voice to intervene in a healthy way is when you’re practicing. If something’s not working, then you want to carefully scrutinize individual elements, but not during a competition.
Sonya: Another place I’ve used distancing in competition is when something hurts really bad, or I do 100-mile mountain bike races, so it’s like, oh, there’s so much there’s so much farther to go. Or maybe the race isn’t going well. I’ll actually imagine zoom out, so you can see the Earth. So like, okay, this moment I’m having doesn’t actually matter. Nobody cares about this bike race. Nobody cares about, this tiny little problem that I have. And that seems to make things better.
Dr. Kross: Yeah, I mean, that’s a distancing tool. And if you’re doing it with the visual, I mean, that’s a visual version of this. It’s a way of broadening your perspective to put things in perspective, right? I mean, sometimes I could be so upset the guy gave me the bird today, but then if I zoom out, and I think about the famished people in other neighborhoods or continents, like, hey, let’s get real here. This wasn’t a big deal. It’s a way of broadening our perspective by zooming out. And, when you think of yourself as a speck of a tiny speck, when you’re looking at yourself from space, I think it’s doing the same thing.
Sonya: And I also wanted to ask you about fatigue because all of us listening know, when you’re tired, you don’t deal with emotions very well and it’s easier to overthink or let your chatter get the best of you. What have you seen in your lab with fatigue? And what’s been the most interesting takeaway?
Dr. Kross: Well, I think fatigue certainly makes it more…so well, let me back up. A lot of the tools that exist for managing chatter are effortful, they require your ability to muster energy to implement those tools and more fatigue, the more challenging it might be to do that. There are also tools though, that are less effortful, and one of the reasons we are really excited about those tools is because they should be easier to use in the heat of the moment, when you may not have as much energy and distant self-talk, being an example of one of those less effortful tools, use your own name to coach yourself to a problem, it’s not really hard to do that in the way that maybe writing a journal entry for 15 minutes is or meditating for 20 minutes. But I think you do want to be aware of the fact that when you’re, you’re more tired, you may be less motivated, when you’re less motivated, that affects how you approach a problem. The question that often comes up in this space has to do with sleep, because chatter often comes up in our sleep, and can prevent us from getting more sleep. And so people often ask, what can you do about that situation. And there, I think the thing to remember is, the better you can manage your chatter when you have access to all of your tools during the day, the more likely you’ll be effective in the evening. But if you’re first trying to manage it at three in the morning when it strikes, it’s a lot harder to do. There’s still things you can do when that happens, or certain kinds of sleep hygiene practices you can engage in, but ideally, you try to manage it when you have all of your energy available to you.
Sonya: And we have a couple of minutes left, the last thing I wanted to ask you about, speaking of energy, is how your physical environment affects your inner narrative.
Dr. Kross: Well, it’s really interesting, there are lots of ways you can interact with your physical space that help with chatter. One thing we know about chatter is people often feel like they don’t have control of their thoughts when they’re stuck in chatter, right. They want to stop thinking about it, they want to feel better, but they can’t. And that’s not a generally positive state. Because we know that people tend to like feeling like they’re in control of things. What we’ve learned is you can compensate for that experience, that feeling of not having control, by exerting control on your surroundings. So organizing a space and cleaning up, you’re in control. You’re putting things in order that can happen official effects, giving people the sense of control and order that they lack when they’re experiencing chatter. Performing a ritual, engaging in a complex sequence of behaviors, you do the exact same way every single time. You see athletes doing this a lot during high stress moments, it’s another way of enhancing feelings of control. So it’s another way of doing something out in the world that helps with the dialogue happening between your head. The last thing is increasing your exposure to green spaces. We know that this can help people in a few different ways. One thing it can do is it restores our attention. So chatter, as we just talked about before, can really drain our attention. And all we do is think about that we can’t think of anything else. So what happens with green space exposure is, studies show that when you go for a walk, in like a safe natural space, your attention it gradually like drifts onto the interesting surroundings, the shrubs, the trees, the flowers, and so you’re not really carefully scrutinizing their structure and physical composition, but you’re just kind of noticing them. But what that does is it takes your attention off the chatter temporarily, and allows your attention to restore. So when you’re done with the walk, you’ve got more resources available to manage it. The other thing that green space exposure does is it puts us in a position to experience the emotion of awe, which is an emotion we experience when we’re in the presence of something fast that we have trouble explaining, like an amazing sunset or a mountain that’s miles high, or a tree that’s been there for 200 years. When we experience awe – how can this be – that’s another way of broadening our perspective and leads to something we call a shrinking of the self. We feel a whole lot smaller when they’re when we’re contemplating something fast and indescribable. And when we feel smaller, so do our problems. And so you can get those feelings of awe, a lot of people get it from green spaces, but you can get it elsewhere too. I feel awe when I am in a city and I gaze up at a skyscraper. I feel awe every time I get on an airplane, I still don’t quite understand how we figured out how to do that – fly. So those are those are a variety of ways that you can manage what’s happening in your head by interacting with your environment.
Sonya: Well, thanks so much for taking the time to come on the podcast today. There’s so many tools and takeaways for people. And if they’re not dying to go get your book now then then they need to work on their self-talk.
Dr. Kross: Well, I appreciate it. Appreciate you having me. I appreciate the kind words about the book. I’m glad it was helpful.
Sonya: And where can people find more information about you?
Dr. Kross: Then go to my website, it’s www.Ethankross.com. And that’s cross with a K, K-R-O-S-S, and there’s info about the book, about my lab, about me, that they should be able to access.
Sonya: All right, well, thank you for all the work that you’re doing.