Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Role of Self-Distancing in Enabling Adaptive Self-Reflection

There was a recent article in Medical News Today on self-distancing to temper aggressive reactions, based on research conducted by Dominik Mischkowski, Ethan Kross, and Brad J. Bushman. Kross is from the University of Michigan's Emotions and Self-Control Laboratory (more on this below). Their findings appear online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. [NOTE: The other two researchers are from Ohio State University, proof that differing tribes - who often express mortal hatred on the sports field - can indeed work together in peace.]

With this research, and a whole collection of similar studies, psychology has essentially (re)discovered the Buddhist teachings on non-attachment. If we can avoid becoming identified with our thoughts and feelings, we can remain non-reactive and more able to respond appropriately to the circumstances.

There several other similar studies abstracted below.

Here is the report on the study from Medical News Today. The original research is also available online and the link is at the bottom.

Aggressive Reactions Can Be Tempered By 'Self-Distancing'

Article Date: 04 Jul 2012

A new study reveals a simple strategy that people can use to minimize how angry and aggressive they get when they are provoked by others.

When someone makes you angry, try to pretend you're viewing the scene at a distance - in other words, you are an observer rather than a participant in this stressful situation. Then, from that distanced perspective, try to understand your feelings.

Researchers call this strategy "self-distancing."

In one study, college students who believed a lab partner was berating them for not following directions responded less aggressively and showed less anger when they were told to take analyze their feelings from a self-distanced perspective.

"The secret is to not get immersed in your own anger and, instead, have a more detached view," said Dominik Mischkowski, lead author of the research and a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State University.

"You have to see yourself in this stressful situation as a fly on the wall would see it."

While other studies have examined the value of self-distancing for calming angry feelings, this is the first to show that it can work in the heat of the moment, when people are most likely to act aggressively, Mischkowski said.

The worst thing to do in an anger-inducing situation is what people normally do: try to focus on their hurt and angry feelings to understand them, said Brad Bushman, a co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State.

"If you focus too much on how you're feeling, it usually backfires," Bushman said.

"It keeps the aggressive thoughts and feelings active in your mind, which makes it more likely that you'll act aggressively."

Mischkowski and Bushman conducted the study with Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan. Their findings appear online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and will be published in a future print edition.

There were two related studies. The first involved 94 college students who were told they were participating in a study about the effects of music on problem solving, creativity and emotions.

The students listened to an intense piece of classical music while attempting to solve 14 difficult anagrams (rearranging a group of letters to form a word such as "pandemonium"). They had only seven seconds to solve each anagram, record their answer and communicate it to the experimenter over an intercom.

But the plan of the study was to provoke the students into anger, which the experimenters did using a technique which has been used many times in similar studies.

The experimenter interrupted the study participants several times to ask them to speak louder into the intercom, finally saying "Look, this is the third time I have to say this! Can't you follow directions? Speak louder!"

After this part of the experiment, the participants were told they would be participating in a task examining the effects of music on creativity and feelings.

The students were told to go back to the anagram task and "see the scene in your mind's eye." They were put into three groups, each of which were asked to view the scene in different ways.

Some students were told to adopt a self-immersed perspective ("see the situation unfold through your eyes as if it were happening to you all over again") and then analyze their feelings surrounding the event. Others were told to use the self-distancing perspective ("move away from the situation to a point where you can now watch the event unfold from a distance - watch the situation unfold as if it were happening to the distant you all over again") and then analyze their feelings. The third control group was not told how to view the scene or analyze their feelings.

Each group was told the replay the scene in their minds for 45 seconds.

The researchers then tested the participants for aggressive thoughts and angry feelings.

Results showed that students who used the self-distancing perspective had fewer aggressive thoughts and felt less angry than both those who used the self-immersed approach and those in the control group.

"The self-distancing approach helped people regulate their angry feelings and also reduced their aggressive thoughts," Mischkowski said.

In a second study, the researchers went further and showed that self-distancing can actually make people less aggressive when they've been provoked.

In this study, 95 college students were told they were going to do an anagram task, similar to the one in the previous experiment. But in this case, they were told they were going to be working with an unseen student partner, rather than one of researchers (in reality, it actually was one of the researchers). In this case, the supposed partner was the one who delivered the scathing comments about following directions.

As in the first study, the participants were then randomly assigned to analyze their feelings surrounding the task from a self-immersed or a self-distanced perspective. Participants assigned to a third control group did not receive any instructions regarding how to view the scene or focus on their feelings.

Next, the participants were told they would be competing against the same partner who had provoked them earlier in a reaction-time task. The winner of the task would get the opportunity to blast the loser with noise through headphones - and the winner chose the intensity and length of the noise blast.

The findings showed that participants who used the self-distancing perspective to think about their partners' provocations showed lower levels of aggression than those in the other two groups. In other words, their noise blasts against their partner tended to be shorter and less intense.

"These participants were tested very shortly after they had been provoked by their partner," Mischkowski said.

"The fact that those who used self-distancing showed lower levels of aggression shows that this technique can work in the heat of the moment, when the anger is still fresh."

Mischkowski said it is also significant that those who used the self-distancing approach showed less aggression than those in the control group, who were not told how to view the anger-inducing incident with their partner.

This suggests people may naturally use a self-immersing perspective when confronted with a provocation - a perspective that is not likely to reduce anger.

"Many people seem to believe that immersing themselves in their anger has a cathartic effect, but it doesn't. It backfires and makes people more aggressive," Bushman said.

Another technique people are sometimes told to use when angered is to distract themselves - think of something calming to take their mind off their anger.

Mischkowski said this may be effective in the short-term, but the anger will return when the distraction is not there.

"But self-distancing really works, even right after a provocation - it is a powerful intervention tool that anyone can use when they're angry." 
* * * * * * *

Flies on the wall are less aggressive: Self-distancing “in the heat of the moment” reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and aggressive behavior

Dominik Mischkowski, Ethan Kross, Brad J. Bushman

People tend to ruminate after being provoked,which is like using gasoline to put out a fire—it feeds the flame by keeping aggressive thoughts and angry feelings active. In contrast, reflecting over past provocations from a self-distanced or “fly on the wall” perspective reduces aggressive thoughts and angry feelings. However, it is unclear whether people can self-distance “in the heat of the moment” (i.e., immediately after being provoked), and if they can, whether doing so reduces actual aggressive behavior. Two experiments addressed these issues. The results indicated that provoked participants who self-distanced had fewer aggressive thoughts and angry feelings (Experiment 1) and displayed less aggressive behavior (Experiment 2) than participants who self-immersed or were in a control group. These findings demonstrate that people can self-distance in the heat of the moment, and that doing so reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and aggressive behavior.
* * * * * * *

This feels like an important skill to teach clients - and perhaps an approach that feels less Buddhist (being mindful, non-attachment) or spiritual (the observing self, or witness). Some clients seem to have a harder time when the idea is presented in that kind of terminology.

But self-distancing? Makes perfect sense.

So I did a little Googling and found that Ethan Kross is the primary researcher in this field, and that many of his articles are freely available online from the U of Michigan's Emotions and Self-Control Laboratory.

Here are some of the papers and links - abstracts only (in no particular order).

Analyzing Negative Experiences Without Ruminating: The Role of Self-Distancing in Enabling Adaptive Self-Reflection

Ozlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross
Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4/10 (2010): 841–854.
doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00301.x


Both common intuition and findings from multiple areas of research suggest that when faced with distressing experiences, it is helpful to understand one’s feelings. However, a large body of research also indicates that people’s attempts to make sense of their feelings often backfire, leading them to ruminate and feel worse. In this article, we describe a program of research that focuses on disentangling these seemingly contradictory sets of findings. The research program we describe proposes that psychological distance from the self plays a key role in determining whether people’s attempts to understand their feelings lead to adaptive or maladaptive self-reflection. It suggests that people’s attempts to understand their feelings often fail because they analyze their feelings from a self-immersed perspective rather than a self-distanced perspective. Empirical evidence from multiple levels of analysis is presented to support this prediction. The basic science and clinical implications of these findings are discussed.

* * * * * * *

From a Distance: Implications of Spontaneous Self-Distancing for Adaptive Self-Reflection

Ozlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010, Vol. 98, No. 5, 809–829.
DOI: 10.1037/a0019205


Although recent experimental work indicates that self-distancing facilitates adaptive self-reflection, it remains unclear (a) whether spontaneous self-distancing leads to similar adaptive outcomes, (b) how spontaneous self-distancing relates to avoidance, and (c) how this strategy impacts interpersonal behavior. Three studies examined these issues demonstrating that the more participants spontaneously self-distanced while reflecting on negative memories, the less emotional (Studies 1–3) and cardiovascular (Study 2) reactivity they displayed in the short term. Spontaneous self-distancing was also associated with lower emotional reactivity and intrusive ideation over time (Study 1). The negative association between spontaneous self-distancing and emotional reactivity was mediated by how participants construed their experience (i.e., less recounting relative to reconstruing) rather than avoidance (Studies 1–2). In addition, spontaneous self-distancing was associated with more problem-solving behavior and less reciprocation of negativity during conflicts among couples in ongoing relationships (Study 3). Although spontaneous self-distancing was empirically related to trait rumination, it explained unique variance in predicting key outcomes.
* * * * * * *

Boosting Wisdom: Distance From the Self Enhances Wise Reasoning, Attitudes, and Behavior

Ethan Kross and Igor Grossmann
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication, July 4, 2011.
doi: 10.1037/a0024158


Although humans strive to be wise, they often fail to do so when reasoning over issues that have profound personal implications. Here we examine whether psychological distance enhances wise reasoning, attitudes and behavior under such circumstances. Two experiments demonstrate that cueing people to reason about personally meaningful issues (Study 1: Career prospects for the unemployed during an economic recession; Study 2: Anticipated societal changes associated with one’s chosen candidate losing the 2008 U.S. Presidential election) from a distanced perspective enhances wise reasoning (dialecticism; intellectual humility), attitudes (cooperation-related attitude assimilation), and behavior (willingness to join a bipartisan group).
* * * * * * *

Making Meaning out of Negative Experiences by Self-Distancing

Ethan Kross and Ozlem Ayduk
Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2011, 20(3) 187-191.
DOI: 10.1177/0963721411408883


Both common wisdom and findings from multiple areas of research suggest that it is helpful to understand and make meaning out of negative experiences. However, people’s attempts to do so often backfire, leading them to ruminate and feel worse. Here we attempt to shed light on these seemingly contradictory sets of findings by examining the role that self-distancing plays in facilitating adaptive self-reflection. We begin by briefly describing the ‘‘self-reflection paradox.’’ We then define self-distancing, present evidence from multiple levels of analysis that illustrate how this process facilitates adaptive self-reflection, and discuss the basic science and practical implications of this research.
* * * * * * *

The Relationship Between Self-Distancing and the Duration of Negative and Positive Emotional Experiences in Daily Life

Philippe Verduyn, Iven Van Mechelen, Ethan Kross, Carmen Chezzi, and Femke Van Bever
Emotion. Online First Publication, May 28, 2012. 
doi: 10.1037/a0028289


Extant research suggests that self-distancing facilitates adaptive self-reflection of negative emotional experiences. However, this work operationalizes adaptive self-reflection in terms of a reduction in the intensity of negative emotion, ignoring other important aspects of emotional experience such as emotion duration. Moreover, prior research has predominantly focused on how self-distancing influences emotional reactivity in response to reflecting on negative experiences, leaving open questions concerning how this process operates in the context of positive experiences. We addressed these issues by examining the relationship between self-distancing and the duration of daily negative and positive emotions using a daily diary methodology. Discrete-time survival analyses revealed that reflecting on both daily negative (Studies 1 and 2) and positive events (Study 2) from a self-distanced perspective was associated with shorter emotions compared with reflecting on such events from a self-immersed perspective. The basic science and clinical implications of these findings are discussed.

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