Have you ever looked back on a bad relationship and been astonished you didn’t see what was happening more clearly?
Or are you baffled when your friend simply doesn’t get the obvious about his or her relationship troubles?
Research conducted at my alma mater, University of Michigan, indicates it’s a common problem, and suggests considering your problems from the outside to get better perspective.
My former colleague at the U-M News Service, Diane Swanbrow, wrote about a press release about research by social psychologists Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and Ethan Kross, published in Psychological Science.
Grossmann and Kross asked study participants to reflect on a relationship conflict of their own or someone else’s, such as a spouse’s infidelity with a close friend. Participants were asked to think about this problem in the first-person and in the third-person, and offer advice on how to address the problem.
According to Grossmann, the results clearly show that when people think about problems in the first-person, people are wiser when reasoning about others’ problems than their own, a bias that the researchers term “Solomon’s Paradox,” after the Old Testament king who was known for his wisdom but who still failed at making personal decisions.
“When people self-distance, they are capable of reasoning as wisely about their own interpersonal problems as about the problems of others,” said Kross, associate professor of psychology and a faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research.
Self-distancing is straightforward to do, Kross and Grossmann say.
“We simply asked our participants to use their own name and other non-first-person pronouns such as “you” when thinking about themselves,” Kross said. “Instead of saying, ‘Why am I feeling this way?’ you adopt a distanced perspective by asking yourself, ‘Why are you feeling this way?’”
Grossmann and Kross also examined how age affects people’s ability to make wise decisions.
“The belief that with age comes wisdom is not true when it comes to reasoning about our own personal problems,” Kross said. “Older people may be wiser in giving advice to others, but not necessarily in deciding what to do themselves. If they adopt self-distancing techniques, they can be as effective as younger people in closing this wisdom gap.”
It sounds so simple, just changing the pronouns as you consider an issue. Instead of “What should I do?” try “What are you going to do?” or “What are your options?”
in a novel I began many years ago, and which stalled out shortly thereafter, my lead character is faced with a big life decision and she’s especially challenged because she always went to her dad for life advice and he’s recently died. She realizes her dad never actually told her what to do, but just asked her a series of questions about the situation and then suddenly the right thing to do seemed totally obvious. She begins to try playing both sides of the conversation — trying to find the answer through self distancing, though I didn’t realize that was the term.
Now there’s research showing I should be doing that more in real life, not just with fictional characters.