Today’s episode is about the science of self-talk—and how our relationship to our own inner monologue can become toxic. Psychologist Ethan Kross joins the show to explain his work on emotion regulation, his book Chatter on the science of negative self-talk, why the ability to have an inner monologue can be a kind of superpower, and how to harness it.
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Ethan Kross summarizes some of the different ways and reasons people use their “inner voice.”
Derek Thompson: So to start, why don’t you say a bit about what it is that you study at the University of Michigan?
Ethan Kross: So in a nutshell, I study the nuts and bolts that explain how people can manage their emotions when they want to manage their emotions. And what I mean by nuts and bolts is I try to understand the mechanics that underlie our ability or, in many cases, inability to manage our emotional lives. And so sometimes [that work] takes us to studying the brain, we focus on people’s behavior a lot, and we also do big intervention studies to see whether the insights we glean from the science that we do can actually be translated to help people manage their emotions effectively in their daily lives.
Thompson: So one part of my daily life that is sometimes an annoyance and sometimes an extraordinary help is the fact that I talk to myself constantly. I have a very loud inner monologue, my subvocal self-talk sometimes sounds very, very vocal. I had never read about this concept, though, in any formality. And so it was so awesome to get your book, Chatter, to help break it down. Let’s start with a definition. What is self-talk? What is chatter?
Kross: Well, before I give you the definition, I just want to normalize your experience for you, and to let you know that if you have a very active inner voice—you’re not alone, many people do. So let’s start with this concept of the inner voice, which is where I like to start things. So when scientists use the term inner voice, what we’re talking about is our ability to silently use words, to reflect on different features of our daily experience. If I were to present you with a number, like a phone number, and I’d ask you, “Hey, just repeat this in your head,” say, 2090501, you do that silently. That’s you using your inner voice. If you go to the grocery store, you walk down the aisle and you think to yourself, “Hey, what am I supposed to buy?” and you go down the list—”eggs, cheese, milk”—that’s your inner voice. Your inner voice is part of what we call our verbal working memory system. [That] basic system of the human mind lets us keep verbal information active for short periods of time. And we rely on that system every day, throughout the day, to live our lives. So that’s one thing your inner voice helps you do.
Another thing it helps you do is simulate and plan. So before I give a big presentation, I will go over what I’m going to say—usually word for word, in my head. When I’m going for a walk around the hotel, I’m rehearsing. That’s me using my inner voice. And I don’t just simulate what I’m going to say. I then imagine what is someone else going to say to me? And then I respond in my head. I go through that whole interaction using my inner voice. So we use our inner voice to simulate and plan.
We also use our inner voice to motivate ourselves. So this morning I’m exercising, doing a really high-intensity interval training, whatever it’s called, HIIT class. I’m miserable, I’m in pain, and the instructor’s telling me to do more painful things. And I start talking to myself, “Come on, you son of a ... You got this.” And I’m being pretty firm, but I’m motivating myself, and athletes report doing this all the time.
And then finally, and I wonder if this is where your self-talk really perks up. Knowing you a little bit outside of this podcast, I suspect it does, but I might be wrong, so you tell me. For those of you who are listening, Derek’s face now is becoming very serious as he waits for me to offer him my appraisal of the situation.
Thompson: That’s true.
Kross: So we use our inner voice to storify our lives. Things happen in our lives that we’re trying to make sense of. We are meaning-making machines. Why did this happen? Why didn’t I get this gig? Why did this person say this to me? What should I do? And we use our inner voice to create narratives that help us make sense of life.
So those are just a couple of the key functions your inner voice allows you to do. It all falls into the domain of talking to ourselves, but in lots of different ways, for lots of different reasons.
This transcript was edited for clarity.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Ethan Kross
Producer: Devon Manze