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PRODUCTIVITY

How to Give Yourself a Pep Talk

New science says that positive self-talk can boost motivation and self-confidence, but correct technique is key.

Thanks to Saturday Night Live's Stuart Smalley and his immortal catchphrase, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me," the idea of more confidence through self-affirmation has become something of a joke.

These days plenty of people think of giving yourself a pep talk as, at best, useless and, at worst, a little sad.

But according to the latest science, the idea isn't nonsense after all. It's still probably true that chatting to yourself in front of a mirror won't overcome serious inertia or deep-seated self-loathing (sorry, Stuart), but new research suggests that giving yourself a pep talk can have benefits--if you do it right.

I versus you

The series of three experiments recently published in the European Journal of Social Psychology looked at the difference between talking to yourself (in your head rather than out loud) in the first ("I") versus second ("you") person. Study subjects were asked to give themselves advice relating to various situations ranging from completing more anagrams to getting to the gym more frequently. Half used the first person ("I'm going to start exercising more!") and half the second ("You should definitely get off your butt and work out this week!")

Simply swapping pronouns led to greater performance no matter the task the test subjects performed. If they used "you" rather than "I," participants completed more anagrams and had better attitudes toward exercise.

What's behind this effect? In a write-up of the research on the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog, the authors speculate that "you" may be more powerful because it reminds us of advice from others. "The researchers speculate that second-person self-talk may have this beneficial effect because it cues memories of receiving support and encouragement from others, especially in childhood," explains Christian Jarrett in the blog post.

More self-talk studies

The BPS also notes that this study in particular used only undergrads as experimental subjects, so it's far from definitive. Maybe what's true of young psychology students isn't true for everyone, and maybe what works for completing puzzles or hitting the Stairmaster doesn't apply in other real-world situations. But the findings are consistent with plenty of other research showing that self-talk can be effective, and that it's even more useful if you use "you" rather than "I."

One University of Michigan study reported earlier this year in the WSJ found that those who worked through their stress about giving a speech using "you" rather than "I" performed better and were less bothered by anxieties. When people use the second-person pronoun, "it allows them to give themselves objective, helpful feedback," Ethan Kross, professor of psychology and director of the Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory at the University of Michigan, told the paper.

So go ahead and feel free to talk to yourself. You're not crazy and it just might help, but you'll get more out of cheering yourself on if you use "you" rather than "I."

 

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Last updated: Jul 21, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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