Go Ahead, Talk to Yourself. (It's Good for You!)

Kids often talk to themselves as they learn new tasks, a practice that can benefit adults as well. ArtisticCaptures/iStockphoto

Talking to yourself, both in your head and out loud, is quite common, with many people reporting they talk to themselves on an almost-hourly basis.

Research shows that talking to yourself as an adult isn't only completely normal — it can be good for you.

Self-directed speech is common in children, who often narrate tasks as they perform them. For example, a child learning to tie his shoes may recite, "Over, under, pull it tight. Make a bow, pull it through to do it right."

This self-talk helps children stay on task and it guides their actions so they can master the job at hand. The same is true for adults.

Go ahead and talk to yourself

You may have engaged in a little instructional self-talk when you learned to drive a car, thinking or even saying aloud something like, "Foot on the brake, shift into gear, both hands on the wheel..." By actually thinking out loud, studies show that we we remain focused and are better able to perform the task at hand.

"What happens with self-talk is you stimulate your action, direct your action and evaluate your action," Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, a University of Thessaly professor who studies self-talk and the psychology of sports performance, told The Wall Street Journal.

Gary Lupyan, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison demonstrated this in a study where volunteers were shown 20 pictures of various objects and then instructed to search for a specific one. Half the participants were told to repeatedly say the item they were looking for aloud, while the others were told to be silent.

Those who spoke aloud were able to find the objects about 50 milliseconds faster than the silent volunteers.

"The general take-home point is that language is not just a system of communication, but I'm arguing it can augment perception, augment thinking," Lupyan told LiveScience.

Even thinking of cue words can have a profound effect. A study of elite sprinters concluded that runners who speak certain words to themselves, such as "push" during the acceleration phase of a sprint, run faster than those who don't.

Don't say ‘I'

Studies show that the pronouns we use when we talk to ourselves also matter.

Psychologist Ethan Kross asked two groups of volunteers to give a speech with only five minutes of mental preparation time. To make the task even more stressful, he informed participants that they'd be speaking in front of a panel of experts and their speeches would be videotaped.

Both groups were told that self-talk could help them prepare for stressful situations, but one group was instructed to address themselves as "I" while the other was told to use second- or third-person pronouns like "you" or their own names.

Kross found that the participants who used the second- and third-person pronouns were less stressed and performed significantly better than those who used "I" because they'd created psychological distance. By referring to themselves as an "other" they mentally distanced themselves from the stressful event, enabling themselves to feel less anxious and perform better.

"What we find is that a subtle linguistic shift —shifting from 'I' to your own name — can have really powerful self-regulatory effects," Kross told NPR. "It's almost like you are duping yourself into thinking about you as though you were another person," Kross said.

View Article Sources
  1. Kross, Ethan, et al. “Self-Talk as a Regulatory Mechanism: How You Do It Matters.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 106, no. 2, Feb. 2014, pp. 304–24., doi:10.1037/a0035173

  2. Geurts, Bart. “Making Sense of Self Talk.” Review of Philosophy and Psychology, vol. 9, no. 2, 2018, pp. 271–85., doi:10.1007/s13164-017-0375-y

  3. Walter, Nadja, et al. “Effects of Self-Talk Training on Competitive Anxiety, Self-Efficacy, Volitional Skills, and Performance: An Intervention Study with Junior Sub-Elite Athletes.” Sports (Basel, Switzerland), vol. 7, no. 6, June 2019., doi:10.3390/sports7060148

  4. Lupyan, Gary, and Daniel Swingley. “Self-Directed Speech Affects Visual Search Performance.” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol. 65, no. 6, 2012, pp. 1068–85., doi:10.1080/17470218.2011.647039

  5. Mallett, Clifford J., and Stephanie J. Hanrahan. “Race Modeling: An Effective Cognitive Strategy for the 100 m Sprinter?” The Sport Psychologist, vol. 11, no. 1, Mar. 1997, pp. 72–85., doi:10.1123/tsp.11.1.72