The Templeton Ideas Podcast is a show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.
Dr. Ethan Kross is a psychologist, author, and professor at the University of Michigan, where he is the founder and director of the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory. His research focuses on emotional regulation and the benefits of mastering one’s inner voice. Ethan is the author of international bestseller Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. Ethan joins the podcast to discuss the advantages and potential pitfalls of introspection, the relationship between goal-setting and self-control, and why all emotions are useful if experienced in the right dosages.
Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.
Abby: Ethan, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.
Ethan: Thanks for having me it’s an absolute delight to be here.
Abby: I’m curious if you can recall a moment or a story about when you first became interested in the human mind and the way humans think.
Ethan: Fantastic question. I think I can trace the roots of this experience back to hanging out with my dad as a kid. I tell this story in, in my book, Chatter, that from around the time I was three years old, my dad would start talking to me about the mind.
My dad was always fascinated by Eastern philosophy, he just found issues that stem from Hinduism and Buddhist thought about the mind to be fascinating.
He would practice meditation and he would talk to me about it. And that got me thinking from a young age about things like… emotions, about cognition. I didn’t have that vocabulary to talk about those experiences then, but I was always mindful of those internal phenomena. Never really, really dove into them though until I got to college and took my first psychology class.
About halfway through the semester we got to the topic of introspection which was really the topic that my dad had spent most of his time with me talking about. And so he reinforced that message over and over and over again, and I internalized it. I used that idea to get through adversity as an adolescent, I would get a bad grade on occasion or get rejected more than on occasion from girls that I asked out on dates and things like that and when that would occur, turn my attention inward, alright, what, what’s going on? Why’d this happen? And, and then I’d move on. I never got stuck. So then fast forward, I get to Penn, I take this intro psych class on introspection. First thing I learn in the class is, this ability to turn our attention inward to make sense of our problems — absolute superpower that human beings possess.
It’s what allows us to innovate and be the most successful species on the planet. But then a few minutes later in that class, I also learned that this very same tool of the mind, introspection, is also our Achilles heel. Because often when we’re struggling, we do try to turn our attention inward to make sense of our problems, but we end up spinning.
We ruminate, we worry, we perseverate. Choose your favorite label to talk about overthinking and over feeling. And it turns out when we get stuck in that mental rut, that’s a source of tremendous suffering. And so that was just fascinating for me. It really launched me into what would become a career in psychology.
Abby: Would you say humans are born with some semblance of an inner voice, or are we kind of clean slates and our inner voice, our inner dialogue is wholly shaped by the experiences that we have in the world?
Ethan: I don’t think we’re born with fully functioning operational inner voice. I think that does take time to develop in the same way that our ability to use language to communicate with other people develops, so does our ability to use language to communicate with ourselves. Having said that, once our linguistic apparatus is fully up and running, then I do think that there are environmental and genetic sources of influence, and those two often speak to one another and interact as well. And so do I think some people are genetically predisposed to have more depressogenic or anxiety filled conversations with themselves?
Yeah, I think there is a bit of a, a genetic component to that, but we also know the environment exerts a powerful influence on how we talk to ourselves. So I think it’s a little bit of both.
Abby: And on that, how is our inner voice, our inner dialogue impacted by different cultural contexts?
Ethan: Our culture partly determines what kinds of things matter to us. So I’ll give you a concrete example here. In an independent culture, we may be more concerned with our own individual achievement as compared to a more collectivist culture where we care more about the collective and how we’re contributing to the collective. And so the sources of insecurity that we may experience in those two different cultures may vary. In the independent culture, it may be when I’m not achieving on my own. In the collectivist culture, insecurity, the anxiety might come when I’m not contributing enough to the group. And so, the internal conversations we have also follow suit.
Culture can also happen in the home there are all these like microcultures that we grow up in and that we contribute to and one of the things we know about the inner voice is that the relationship between parents or caretakers and their kids plays a pivotal role in shaping the way that inner voice is tuned and functions, which I think is perhaps the most direct evidence supporting this idea that culture influences how we talk to ourselves.
You often see kids repeating the things that their parents say to them. And when they’re little, the kids actually do this out loud. So I have daughters, I would catch them like going off into the corner and repeating the kinds of things that my wife and I would say to them.
They would like be playing with their dolls and repeat, “Oh no, you shouldn’t do that because then you’ll get in trouble.” And then, and, and according to some, that’s how people learn self-control. Right? Kids repeat what parents say to themselves at first out loud, but then they repeat those messages internally in their minds.
And so if you do see little kids talking out loud to themselves, do not worry. It is perfectly normal.
Abby: I love that example. That’s cute. And I know my mom is certainly happy when she hears me telling her, I, you know, remembered to bring a coat somewhere because you’ve told me to do that in the Fall so many times.
Ethan: I mean, but let me ask you a question, like, do you ever find yourself saying things to yourself that your mom said to you as a kid?
Abby: Oh, absolutely. And yeah, I feel like in a lot of examples when that’ll come up, it’s almost like I begrudgingly have to admit that that voice is right, that I should, you know, get a jump on my taxes or whatever it is. But yeah, for sure.
Abby: Can you talk a little bit about what the pitfalls of the inner voice can be of the downsides of introspection?
Ethan: Yeah I’m happy to. So when I use the term inner voice, what I’m talking about is our ability to silently use language to reflect on our lives. So if you can… Utter words silently in your mind, that’s you activating your inner voice. And it’s an amazing tool. It is an asset of the human mind. It lets us do a variety of things, like if you were to memorize a phone number by repeating it in your head or think about what’s on your to do list, that’s using your inner voice.
We use our inner voice to simulate and plan. You think about what you’re going to say before a date or a presentation. That’s your inner voice. We use our inner voice to control and motivate ourselves. When I’m exercising, I’m talking to myself incessantly. “Come on, man. You’ve got this. Two more minutes.
Minute and a half. One more minute. I hate you, instructor, telling me to do painful things.” That’s all inner voice, right? So we use our inner voice for all those things and many other things. You wouldn’t want to live life without one. There is though this big dark side to our inner voice because it is such a remarkably useful tool.
When we’re struggling, we often reflexively try to activate it. to try to work through our problems. We turn our attention inward to try to come up with some explanation for why we’re feeling the way we are. Countless studies show that when people do that, they often succumb to rumination and worry. So, the idea here is you’ve got a problem, you focus your attention on it. That makes sense, very logical, but you end up getting stuck, so you keep on turning that problem over and over in your mind without making any forward progress.
That’s what I call chatter. That’s the dark side of the inner voice. And I think it’s one of the big problems we face as a species. And I say that not to be hyperbolic. I say it based on the data surrounding the consequences of chatter. Because if you look at what it does to us, it impairs our ability to think and perform.
It creates friction in our relationships with other people. And it undermines not only our mental health, our well-being, but also our physical health. If experienced chronically, research shows that chatter can exert a wear and tear on our body in ways that predict all sorts of harmful physiological outcomes like cardiovascular disease, problems of inflammation, even cancer.
So, thinking and performance, relationships, well-being and health, like, these are the things that matter for most of us in our lives. And chatter undermines us in each and every one of those domains, which is why I think it is just such an incredibly important phenomenon to be aware of and to know how to combat.
Abby: Absolutely. And following with that idea of combating the inner voice, what are your go to tools in your personal toolbox for managing chatter?
Ethan: The very first tool that I will use is something called distanced self-talk. It’s probably one of the most effortless tools I talk about in the book. What it involves doing is silently using my own name and the second person pronoun to try to work through a problem.
So I’ll think, alrighty Ethan, what are you doing here? What that tool effectively does, it allows us to step back and reflect on our problems as we would reflect on a friend’s problem. One of the things we know about people is that it is much easier for us to reason wisely about other people’s problems than it is our own.
This is a phenomenon called Solomon’s Paradox. It’s named after the Bible’s King Solomon, who was well known for being a very wise leader. But when it came to his own life… he was not so wise. He made a rash of terrible decisions. The way distanced self-talk works is you’re using parts of speech, names and words like “you” that we typically exclusively use when we think about and refer to other people.
So the link in your mind between using the word you and thinking about someone else is very strong. And so when you use those parts of speech to coach yourself through a problem, it’s almost like you’re turning on the mental machinery for thinking about someone else. And that makes it a lot easier to think more objectively about your circumstances.
So, another thing I do is something called temporal distancing, or mental time travel. I’ll think about how I’m going to feel about something I’m struggling with tomorrow, next week, next year. It’s a really simple mental shift, but it does something very powerful. When you’re experiencing chatter, you tend to zoom in on the problem.
It is all-consuming. It’s suffocating, almost, when it really gets intense. And what happens when you get stuck in the problem in that way is you lose sight of the fact that all emotional experiences have a time course. They’re triggered, they spike, and then they eventually subside. Simply reminding yourself that you are going to feel better about something down the road does something powerful for a mind that is consumed with chatter It gives it hope that things will get better and that turns the volume down on my chatter. So distanced self-talk, mental time travel, if the chatter is still there I’ll call up members of my chatter advisory board. Sounds terribly cheesy, but it’s how I think about it. So these are people in my network who are exceptionally skilled at doing two things when I talk to them or confront them with a problem — they first take the time to listen and learn, to empathize with me, validate what I’m going through, but they don’t just let me vent about my feelings once they get a sense of the terrain, they start working with me to broaden my perspective.
These people have distance from my problems and are in a unique position to help coach me through how I should respond, what I should do, how I should think. And so that’s another valuable tool that I have. So those are the first three things. There may be some other ones I work in, but those are my go-tos.
Abby: Yeah, that’s really helpful. Do you think introspection at work can play a helpful role or even maybe a necessary role in helping people to really find like that deeper meaning and purpose in their lives.
Ethan: Oh, absolutely.
So a question I often get is “how can I silence my inner voice?” And my response is you don't want to silence your inner voice because it's such a remarkable tool.
I tell the story in Chatter about a woman who was overcome with chatter. She was a very successful Harvard neuroanatomist, and she was overcome with worries and ruminations, would constantly ask herself, “How can I silence my inner voice?” And then one day she gets her wish. She suffers a massive stroke.
It’s localized in the left hemisphere of her brain. A blood vessel pops. She temporarily loses the ability to communicate with other people and to communicate with herself. If we pause right there, if I try to understand what would it be like to not be able to use words to reflect on my life? What would it be like to not be able to access the inner voice?
I am totally lost. I’m very rarely lost for words, I should tell you that Abby, like, I can usually come up with a way of describing it. I have no idea what it would be like, what it would feel like to go to the grocery store and not repeat in my head the things on my list. I don’t know what it would be like to be exercising and not be able to count down the number of reps in a set.
I don’t know what it would feel like to experience some major assault to my understanding of who I am. A major rejection or failure experience and not be able to use words to silently weave together an explanation that gives me a sense of meaning as to what I’ve just experienced. That’s what happens when you don’t have an inner voice.
She actually, this woman actually goes on to regain her voice and describe her experience. She actually describes not having the voice as initially euphoric because all the chatter left her when she couldn’t use words anymore to reflect on her life. But, but as time went on it was incredibly disruptive.
So, back to your question about introspection. It’s a remarkable, remarkable tool. I think there is great value in getting lost in verbal thought. We often hear people telling us nowadays about the importance of being in the moment. Being in the moment can be wonderful. There are many, many times throughout the day where I value being in the moment, but like so many things, we often take these ideas to an extreme.
You have many people striving to always be in the moment. And they start getting down on themselves if they’re not, great things come from detaching yourself from the moment and reflecting on the future and the past and using words to do that. And you wouldn’t be able to do that to the same degree that we can now without an inner voice.
Abby: After the break, we talk about self-control, parenting, and what young Ethan would think about his current career. You’re listening to the Templeton Ideas podcast from the John Templeton Foundation. If you’re enjoying this episode, check out Templeton.org backslash news for more awe-inspiring perspectives from scholars, journalists, and colleagues.
You can sign up there to get our newsletter in your inbox, or follow us wherever you are on social media. Now, let’s get back to our conversation.
Abby: What is the relationship between cultivating control over one’s thoughts or emotions and then cultivating control over one’s behaviors? And does one necessarily precede the other?
Ethan: These are timeless questions. If you look at the literature, what you see is it’s a bit of a mishmash, technical term, with lots of double-sided arrows.
I tend to talk about thoughts, feelings, behaviors on the same level when talking about self-control. The way I define it is self-control is your ability to align your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with your goals. And so the idea for me is goals is a key piece of self-control. If you want to think or feel or behave in a particular way, what are the, the tools that allow you to bring those goals to fruition? I like using that definition of self-control because it’s really broad and it makes it clear that self-control is not just about not taking the extra marshmallow or staying away from the alcohol. It’s about controlling our lives, right?
And part of our lives and our sense of self are things like thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Abby: Do people have different natural capacities for self-control?
Ethan: Yes. There are dispositional influences that make some people better at self-control than others, but we also know, again, that the environment can impact these things. So people can be taught how to manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors effectively.
Therapy is another, I think, great example of our capacity for self-control to be taught in many forms of therapy you are explicitly taught how to relate to your thoughts and feelings in different ways that consequentially influence people’s lives. So if you ask me, can it be taught? Emphatically, I think the answer to that question is yes.
Abby: We talk a lot about different virtues with a lot of the folks we interview for our podcast. Patience, grit. Why do so many people struggle to cultivate self-control?
Ethan: Because it’s really hard. That’s it. There’s nothing more to say. It’s just really hard. Mic drop. Mic drop. I will, I’ll give you, um, so why do they struggle? There, there are a couple of reasons why. I think, I think number one, we’re not always explicitly taught how to manage ourselves and our feelings. I think that’s a huge problem.
It also can be challenging to manage our emotions because when we experience really, big intense emotions, they consume our intentional resources. At the same time, many of the tools that exist for managing our emotions require those very same resources in order to be properly deployed. So I think there are a couple of different forces that converge on making it hard to be good at self-control.
Abby: Is there a dark side to self-control?
Ethan: Absolutely. So, if we go back to my definition of self-control, our ability to align our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with our goals, self-control is useful only to the extent that our goals are, are good goals. We can have bad goals, and I think there are many examples of criminals and deviants who are exceptionally well-controlled, which allow them to do really bad things.
So, self-control is in some ways independent of good/bad. I think that the fact that we tend to equate self-control with a good thing. Despite what I just told you, there’s kind of a positive message there for society and the world that on the whole, maybe we have good goals that we’re trying to pursue, but certainly the opposite is also true.
Abby: That’s great. The first time I became aware of your work was maybe two years ago, I heard you on Armchair Expert, which is my all-time favorite podcast. You talked about how emotions are functional, kind of similar to what we talked about with the inner voice, where you don’t want to wish away your inner voice.
So, that brought up for me, immediately, the question of, if we don’t want to live our life without emotions, but obviously emotions can be detrimental when taken to a certain extreme, is there an ideal state of emotional existence that we should all try to aspire to?
Ethan: I think we all have our own ideals. And there’s, there’s some interesting work on cultural ideals of emotion and how different cultures, for example, can give us ideal emotional experiences to strive for. And that in turn, orients us in our lives like these are then the emotional experiences that we seek out. And so we see that at the at the broad cultural level, different parts of the world.
I think that’s also true individually as well. Some people crave the emotional highs more than, you know, equanimity. And I think. I don’t know of any research that says this emotional ideal is de facto better than this one. Now, clearly getting stuck in chatter, if your ideal is to be stuck in chatter for your entire life, that’s not a healthy ideal.
Ethan: And we can objectively point to evidence that suggests it is not healthy. But when you get into the territory of, should we be experiencing happiness? At, you know, a seven out of ten level 20% of the day or a nine out of ten level 60% of the day, it gets really, really fuzzy. And I think that’s where individual differences come into play.
But I do think recognizing that all emotions, even the, the, the quote unquote bad ones are functional that in and of itself is just kind of a huge relief for people because a lot of people when they experience emotions like anger, anxiety and sadness. They think that there’s something wrong with them, right?
But actually, this is their body and, and minds, which of course are linked, often responding appropriately to the situation. Like anxiety is really, really good for you in the right dosages. The fact that I experienced a little bit of anxiety before a big presentation, that makes sure I prepare for that presentation.
There actually have been, Abby, a few presentations in my life. In which I’ve had zero, zero butterflies for it, no anxiety whatsoever. Those stand out in my head, not because of the lack of anxiety, but because they flopped, because I didn’t have enough juice to prepare myself for them. Sadness. Sadness is an emotion that tells us to, hey, let’s spend a little time reflecting on the circumstances because we’ve just suffered a loss that we can’t easily replace, and now we’ve gotta think about things for a little bit and figure out how we’re going to rise to this next occasion. Seems to me like that’s a pretty good thing. So all emotions are useful if they’re experiencing the right dosages.
Abby: Yeah, I like that a lot. Dosage and the most helpful thing for me in my own emotional regulation life has been reminding myself constantly that emotions always feel like they’re going to last forever in the moment you’re experiencing it, but they just never, never, never do.
Ethan: Well, you know, it’s interesting you say that, Abby, because there’s lots of evidence behind that tool, and it’s almost like a psychological jiu jitsu move of the human mind. It’s this tiny little shift that changes the entire momentum of your inner experience. And given the outcome that that little shift is associated with, we need to get word of it out to folks.
No matter how bad the chatter is at 2 a. m., it is always better the next morning. And just reminding myself of that in the moment. is more effective than, than watching Netflix, or having a warm cup of tea, or doing any of the other kinds of sleep hygiene practices that I’ve tried. It, it just quells the chatter and puts me back to bed.
Ethan: So, so it sounds like you benefit from it too.
Abby: Totally. What has becoming a parent taught you about self-control?
Ethan: It’s funny, uh, there’s a common saying in the field that once you have kids, every psychologist becomes a developmental psychologist or wants to. Being a parent it really provides you with multiple opportunities to experience enormous emotional highs, the likes of which I’ve never experienced before, but also tremendous emotional challenges that require every tool in your toolbox to manage at times.
And so it’s a great new phase to the, the kind of, you know, gymnasium that is our emotions and how to, how to play with them.
Abby: If your young self, so whether that’s the little kid Ethan talking to his dad about introspection or maybe undergrad at Penn Ethan, if he could see you now and see kind of the trajectory that your career has taken and your research has taken, what would be his reaction? Would he be surprised?
Ethan: Hmm, that’s a tough one. Would he be surprised? Well, little boy Ethan would be both surprised and dismayed because he had grand plans for me becoming the shortstop for the New York Yankees. So, I don’t think he’d be too happy with where I am now. Even, even college age Ethan would be a little surprised too because I remember the first research assistantship that I, I had at Penn. I just remember seeing, uh, one of the professors I was working for spending all his time… Behind his computer working on papers and writing and I thought to myself, I remember this very distinctly. I remember like, oh my God, you know, I hope my life is never that. That would be awful. Oh no. Is that and I can tell you that I feel grateful on a daily basis for what I get to do because I get to ask and try to answer questions that I find just truly fascinating. Doesn’t feel like work. I know it’s a cliche, but it truly does it. I get to do that. I get to teach other people about what we learn about a topic that I love. And the fact that I get paid to do that, to me, is just a real gift. So, so yeah, I guess thank you for this little journey into the past. I’ve realized that I have disappointed really, everyone pre 25 year old Ethan, but that’s okay. We can’t always predict how our life is going to turn out.
Abby: Post 25 year old Ethan knew the real, knew the real goal, I guess. He knew where we were headed.
Ethan: Post 25, Ethan would be really satisfied.
Abby: Well, thank you so much, Ethan. This has been great.
Ethan: Thanks for having me on. Super fun.
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