My (awesome) advisor at UC Berkeley, Ozlem Ayduk, tackled this question with Ethan Kross, her collaborator at the University of Michigan. In their research Ayduk and Kross contrast thinking about painful memories of this nature, from either a first- or a third-person perspective. When we think about the event from a first-person perspective, we put ourselves right back in our own shoes, and relive the event as if it was happening to us all over again. Ayduk and Kross hypothesized that this “self-immersed” perspective increases negative emotion and the likelihood of ruminating. Alternatively, when we think about an event from a third-person perspective, we see everything unfold from afar; as if we are a fly on the wall or a distant observer of what’s happening. Ayduk and Kross hypothesized that this “self-distanced” perspective, allows an individual to gain insight or meaning without reliving the negative emotions they experienced when the event first occurred. Thinking about the meaning of the event rather than rehashing the details of what they experienced or felt at the time allows for reflection without rumination.
- Participants who self-distance experience less anger and less negative emotion overall than participants who self-immerse (Kross, Ayduk, Mischel, 2005).
- Participants who self-distance describe the event in more abstract terms (e.g. gain insight, experience a sense of closure) while participant who self-immerse describe the event in more concrete terms (e.g. describe the chain of events, blame the other person) (Kross, Ayduk, & Mischel, 2005).
- Participants who self-distance show smaller increases in blood pressure reactivity (which is associated with cardiovascular disease) than participants who self-immerse (Ayduk & Kross, 2008).
- Participants who spontaneously self-distance show similar benefits to those who are directed to self-distance – they experience less negative affect and less physiological reactivity.
- Participants who spontaneously self-distance resolve the conflict more quickly over time.
- Participants who spontaneously self-distance evidence more healthy conflict resolution behaviors with their romantic partners and reciprocate less of their partner’s negative conflict resolution behaviors.
Take a moment to think about a negative experience from the past, such as a breakup or conflict with a loved one. What perspective do you spontaneously take? Do you see the event from your own eyes or are you a fly on the wall? Try assuming a self-distanced perspective. Do you feel differently or see the event in a new way?
Kross E, Ayduk O, & Mischel W (2005). When asking "why" does not hurt. Distinguishing rumination from reflective processing of negative emotions. Psychological science, 16 (9), 709-15 PMID: 16137257
Ayduk, O., & Kross, E. (2008). Enhancing the Pace of Recovery: Self-Distanced Analysis of Negative Experiences Reduces Blood Pressure Reactivity Psychological Science, 19 (3), 229-231 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02073.x
Ayduk O, & Kross E (2010). From a distance: implications of spontaneous self-distancing for adaptive self-reflection. Journal of personality and social psychology, 98 (5), 809-29 PMID: 20438226