A new study from the University of Illinois, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology says using positive affirmations may be doing the best thing to boost chances of success.
Psychologists call this self-talk. Sanda Dolcos and her team first asked 95 psychology undergrads to imagine they were a character in a short story. The character is faced with a choice [strangely, we’re not given any detail about these vignettes], and the participants are asked to write down the advice they would give themselves in this role, to help make the choice. Crucially, half the participants were instructed to use the first-person “I” in their self-advice, the others to use the second-person “You”. Right after, the participants completed a series of anagrams. Those who’d given their fictional selves advice using “You” completed more anagrams than those who’d used the first person “I” (17.53 average completion rate vs. 15.96).
A second study with 143 more psych students was similar, but this time the students gave themselves self-advice specifically in relation to completing anagrams, and this time the researchers finished up the study by tapping the students’ attitudes to anagrams, and their intentions to complete more in the future. Students who gave themselves self-advice in the second-person managed to complete more anagrams, and they said they would be happier to work on more in the future (as compared with students who used the first-person, or a control group who did not give themselves advice). The greater success rate for the second-person students was mediated by their more positive attitudes.
Finally, 135 more psych students wrote down self-advice in relation to exercising more over the next two weeks. Those who referred to themselves as “You” in that advice subsequently stated that they planned to do more exercise over the next two weeks, and they also went on to report more positive attitudes towards exercising, than those students who referred to themselves as “I”.
Dolcos and her colleagues said theirs was the “first experimental demonstration” that second-person self-talk is more effective than the first-person variety, thus complementing “past intuitions and descriptive data” suggesting that people resort to second-person self-talk when in more demanding situations. 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. “Future work should examine ways to actually training people to strategically use the second-person in ways that improve their self-regulation …” they said.
While previous studies have found self-talk can boost willpower and help you psych yourself up when you need to get through a difficult task or to calm nerves before an important presentation or meeting, the study, led by psychologist Dr. Sanda Dolcos, found the pronoun we use to talk to ourselves also matters.
Using “You” VS. “I”
When using the pronoun “you”–as in “you’re going to do a fantastic presentation today” it was found to be more effective than using “I.” In the study, students were asked to write out self-advice while completing anagrams. Half the students were asked to address themselves as “I” while the other half were instructed to use the second-person “you.” When using “you,” the students not only completed more anagrams but said they would be happier to work on more in the future compared with students who used the first-person self-talk or students who gave themselves no advice at all.
Why Second-Person Self-Talk Is Motivational
Dolcos speculates that second-person self-talk may be more beneficial because it triggers memories of receiving support and encouragement from parents and teachers in childhood. “That’s the way we grow up, with our parents and others encouraging us, telling us ‘you can do it,’ ‘you are good,’” she says. Using the second person is also how we give advice to others and Dolcos says may help us get a better perspective on the situation, allowing us to view the event in the way a significant other may see it and reproduce the kind of encouragements others would provide. “The first person is usually more emotional,” she says.
Self-Talk Provides Social Support
People who lack social support from peers or loved ones can benefit from using second-person self-talk to get the same benefits of a support system without actually interacting with other people.
Motivational Quotes VS. Self-Talk
While motivational quotes plastered around your desk may also be beneficial, Dolcos says self-talk is more effective as it can be adjusted to meet an individual’s unique needs and interests. “The words you choose will be very personal to what you need to hear,” says Dolcos.
You can psych yourself up without appearing to be crazy. Writing your self-advice may be as effective as verbal self-talk. The students in Dolcos’s study were instructed to write their self-advice, although Dolcos says the effect could be attributed to the fact that writing is a therapeutic tool, she says further research is needed to determine whether self-talk is more beneficial when given verbally or written.
So, when your confidence is tested, remember to use positive self-talk and positive affirmations to get you through and increase your chances of success.
“You can do this!”
“You’re becoming better and better!”