Illeism: Be unstoppable in your thinking

Although logic is not always effective in solving issues, there are techniques for thinking less emotionally and more objectively. There are hardly many things that have benefited people as much as the outdated illeism strategy.

Using the third person to refer to oneself instead of the first is known as illeism. Politicians frequently employ rhetorical strategies to make it appear as though their statements are neutral. In his descriptions of the Gallic War, Julius Caesar, for instance, used the phrase “Caesar avenged the public” rather than “I avenged the public.” The slight tweak in language aims to make the claim appear more like a historical fact that was recorded by an objective witness.

Illeism can sound silly or pretentious to a modern ear, and we may even make fun of popular people who talk this way. But a new psychological study shows that being sick can have some real benefits for your mind. If we are trying to make a hard choice, talking about ourselves in the third person can help us get rid of the feelings that could lead us astray and help us find a better answer.

Solomon’s riddle

To understand these advantages of illeism, we must first look at how experts figure out how smart someone’s thinking is.

At the Canada’s University of Waterloo, Igor Grossmann has led the way in the scientific study of knowledge. Grossmann first looked at the work of many thinkers to come up with a list of “metacognitive components” that most people think are important for making good decisions. These include intellectual humility, respect for other people’s points of view, and a desire to find a middle ground.

In one of Grossmann’s first studies, he asked people to talk out loud about how they would handle different situations, like personal problems sent to Dear Abby’s “agony aunt” letter, while independent psychologists rated their spoken answers based on these criteria. Grossmann found that these tests of wise thinking are better than IQ tests at predicting how happy people were with their lives and how good their relationships with others were. This showed that the studies picked up on something unique about their thoughts.

Grossmann’s later research showed that the way people think depends on the situation. He found, in particular, that their wise thinking scores were much higher when they thought about other people’s problems than when they thought about their own. Grossmann called this “Solomon’s Paradox” after the old Biblical king known for giving wise advice to others while making a series of bad choices for himself that led to the chaos of his kingdom.

The problem is that when we make personal decisions, we get too caught up in our feelings. This makes it hard to think clearly and puts our problems in the right context. For example, if I got bad feedback from a coworker, I might get too protective out of shame. So, I might ignore what they say without thinking about whether it could help in the long run.

How to get smart with Illeism

Illeism could solve Solomon’s riddle. The thought makes sense. If we talk about the situation in the third person, it will sound like we are talking about someone else instead of ourselves. We wouldn’t be so caught up in our thoughts and instead be able to see the bigger picture.

And that’s exactly what Grossmann and Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor found in a study they did together. They found that people who used illeism to talk about their problems were more intellectually humble, able to see things from other people’s points of view, and ready to come to a compromise. This made their overall scores for wise reasoning go up.

The most recent research shows that using illeism often can help our thinking in the long run.

Working with Abigail Sholer, Anna Dorfman, and others, Grossmann asked people to write in a diary daily for a month about something they had just done or seen. Half of them were told to write in the third person, and the other half were told to write in the first person. At the beginning and finish of the study, the team also looked at how well the subjects thought things through in general. As the researchers had hoped, they found that the people who were told to use illeism in their diaries saw their wise-reasoning scores go up for the month.

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The use of illeism may also help us deal with daily worries in a more balanced way by making us think about how big our problems are. For example, people who filled out the diary in the third person said they felt more positive after hard things happened instead of being sad, angry, or disappointed.

Based on what I’ve learned, I now use illeism to make all choices, big and small. For example, whenever I’m having problems at work, with my friends, or with my family, I find it helpful to think about them from a third-person point of view for a few minutes. This helps me see the situation more clearly.

Reference: Illeism: The ancient trick to help you think more wisely

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