Research Summaries: The Effect of Self-Distancing on Adaptive Versus Maladaptive Self-Reflection in Children

Today’s research summary is based on a shortish paper [pdf] by Angela Duckworth et al (Walter Mischel of Marshmallow effect fame is a co-author!) which focuses on how viewing oneself from a distance, or from a third person perspective, a previous emotional experience, can lead to better and more adaptive outcomes.

Out of body experience

Out of body experience (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Bad stuff happens. And we make it worse by brooding about it. There is some research that shows that thinking or ruminating about negative experiences can lead to bad outcomes in the present like compromised health or impeded cardiovascular recovery following exercise etc. Ruminative thinking style is known as a precursor and risk factor for depression.
  2. On the other hand there is a rich tradition of expressive writing (for e.g. Pennebaker’s work) in which people write about their negative experiences and traumas and seem to benefit (boosts in long term mood and well-being) from such an expressive act.
  3. Different sort of mechanisms are hypothesized in both the above cases. In the first case, one may be reliving the negative experience or recounting it and thus get overwhelmed once more in the present by such a recollection. In the second case, one may be reinterpreting the situation and making fresh sense of the events or reconstruing the events. So reflecting in a negative experience per se may not be bad or good but may lead to a good outcome only when reconstruing happens more than recounting.
  4. Putting a distance between oneself or seeing events from a detached third person perspective have been shown to increase one’s self control and control one’s impulses and also helpful in alleviating depression by enabling better cognitions. It has been hypothesized that self-distancing or viewing things form a detached third person perspective will lead to better and more adaptive outcomes while self-reflecting, as one will not recount or relive the experiences but will be better able to reconstrue or make new sense of the experiences.
  5. The current study looked at ~ 100 fifth grade students and asked them to recollect a negative angry outburst/ interaction which was interpersonal in nature. They were then instructed either to feel the event as of it was happening in the present and they were at the center of the action, or that they were watching the event unfold from a distance and observing the distant self. After they had recalled the experience in both conditions, they filled a brief  survey measuring their emotional reactivity (how much power the vent still holds over them)  and avoidance behavior (do they avoid talking/ thinking  about that issue) . They were also asked to write an essay about their reflection and the essay was content analyzed for recounting thoughts, reconstruing thoughts and blame attributions.
  6. The results showed that when you put a distance between self while recollecting a negative experience, then the emotional reactivity is lesser than when you feel as if you are reliving the experience. Thus, if you want to make a negative experiences hold smaller on you recollect it while putting a distance from self. Thus it was clear that self-distancing was a more adaptive outcome.
  7. They also found that those students who had put a distance between their earlier self while reflecting on their angry interaction, had fewer recounting statements in their essays and more reconstruing statements. They also made fewer blame attributions.
  8. They also did a path analysis and found that self-distancing had its impact on more adaptive outcomes (less negative affect and emotional reactivity) via the mediating variables of more reconstruing statements than recounting statements, which in turn led to lesser blame attributions and thus a closure that led to lesser emotional reactivity.
  9. The take home message, children can benefit form self reflective exercises that make them reflect on negative experiences as long as they are supported in putting a distance between themselves and their past self, so that they don’t merely recount the experience but are able to reconstrue the experience.

Overall, a pretty decent paper [pdf] that stresses the importance of self-distancing while reflecting about past negative experiences.

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