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Ethan Kross is a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind. Since 2016 he led the John Templeton Foundation-funded Toolbox Project to help adapt some of his field’s most cutting-edge findings for professionals working in some of the most demanding known environments: middle school classrooms.

This year Kross has adapted some of the same findings and advice for the broader public in Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. The book offers an accessible overview of the latest brain and behavioral research, including a list of handy interventions readers can apply to their own battles with chatter. Kross spoke recently with Nate Barksdale, lead writer for the John Templeton Foundation’s “Possibilities” newsletter, about the book and his latest research.

How did you get interested in the psychology of introspection?

I was brought up to believe that introspection was helpful for people managing many problems they encounter in life: you introspect, you find a solution, you move on. When I took my first psych class in college, I discovered that a lot of times introspection backfires in spectacular ways that undermine people’s health, their ability to think, and their relationships. That was a pivotal moment for me. It raised lots of questions: Why is introspection sometimes good and sometimes bad? Once it goes awry, what can we do to bring it back on track? I went to grad school to learn how to use science to answer those questions, working under Walter Mischel to help me do it. It’s the big picture question that has really fueled a lot of my research ever since over the past 20 years, and it’s the focus of Chatter. In the book I define chatter as the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing.

How do you tell the difference between good and bad introspection — and between good and bad ways of responding to chatter?

Following the science is incredibly important. In the book, I talk about 26 different tools to fight chatter. Some of these are helpful tools that many people have stumbled upon and used — the book provides the science that validates them and explains how they work. But there are also things that people do that they think are helpful, but that the science says actually aren’t. Emotional venting is a great example of that. 

And then there are tools that aren’t necessarily on people’s radar, or tools that people think are harmful but are actually helpful. For instance, some people think rituals are synonymous with mental health problems, like obsessive compulsive disorder. Certainly there are cases when rituals can be taken to an extreme, but if we step back and look at the history of cultural institutions and religions, rituals are one of the principal tools that people have used across time to help control themselves. Think about when people die — our cultures give us rituals to engage and to help us manage that terrible, chatter-filled state. 

Distanced self-talk — like when I say to myself, “Ethan, you don’t need to worry about this!’ — is another thing that could seem strange or negative at first. But research shows that silently referring to yourself in a third or second person can help people manage their emotions under stress. Distanced self-talk shifts people’s perspective, making it easier for them to coach themselves through a problem like they were advising a friend. You can see people doing this throughout history, and often in contexts in which they’re trying to manage themselves, from Julius Caesar to LeBron James and Malala Yousafzai. It’s not a sign of narcissism or a strange linguistic tick—it’s an emotion regulatory tool.

Then we get to things like superstitions and lucky charms. I’ll give you a concrete example. I coach soccer for my daughters and the other day, one of their teammates was really anxious about playing goalie. And my daughter who’s on the team had these hair ties that fit on her wrist. I borrowed them and gave them to the girl, saying, “Here are the Soccer Power Bracelets, you wear these and you are impenetrable.” It instantly calmed her down. They helped so much they’ve become the team’s lucky charm, and we rotate them across goalies. That’s exactly how placebos and the power of expectation can work when we use it for positive benefit. Research shows that if I give you a sugar pill and say, ‘Take this, you’re gonna feel better,’ and you believe me, then you’ll likely feel better. It’s been shown to work for Parkinson’s disease symptoms, migraines, and even moderate forms of depression. I’ll eventually have a discussion with the team about the nature of the bracelets’ active ingredient. But when I said, “Hey, put this band on, it’s gonna make you feel better,” there wasn’t any duplicity, as there’s oodles of science that backs this up.

That said, we can do better than just placebos when it comes to managing chatter. There are lots of other tools that do have active ingredients. And I think the best shot for success is to take the things that we know have active ingredients and layer the placebo effect on top.

If you could distill the message of Chatter down to a single piece of advice what would it be?

In our culture, I think we’re often searching for the one thing you can do. I’m often asked the one thing I can do when it comes to managing chatter. What I tell people is, don’t limit yourself to one thing! There is a reason we have evolved to possess so many different tools to manage introspection. And so my advice is, don’t limit yourself, avail yourself of the myriad tools that are out there and find the right combinations that work for you. Science has done a pretty good job identifying specific tools, but what it hasn’t yet done is figure out how they combine optimally for different people facing different kinds of challenges. 

We recently did a study on managing COVID anxiety where we sampled 18 tools per day for two weeks to see how different tools influence people’s anxiety. What we found is that individual tools by and large weren’t predictive of anxiety, it was using combinations of tools. On average, each day, people use several different tools. And the more they used healthy combinations of tools, the lower their anxiety.

We found that the more vulnerable people were, the more likely they were to use unhealthy combinations of tools each day to manage their anxiety. But on the off occasion, when they did use a healthy combination of tools, they benefited from it just as much as the people who weren’t as vulnerable.

Do the tools and tool-combinations best suited for fighting chatter work equally well for kids and adults?

Chatter has been studied more extensively in adults, but I do think that many of the tools I talk about are likely to generalize to children — things like increasing your exposure to natural spaces, or practicing distanced self-talk. It may be harder for children to wrap their heads around some of the tools we know about. So, it’s important to figure out ways of making these tools accessible to them. For instance, we’ve made distanced self-talk “kid friendly” by asking kids to assume the role of a fictional character like Batman or Dora the Explorer when they’re struggling with a hard task. Research shows that doing so helps them persevere longer. 

More broadly, the message I like to convey to people is that a lot of the tools that science has unearthed are really simple to implement. My advice for everyone is, try them out, and if they’re not serving you well, don’t use them again. So if going for a walk in a nice tree-lined Arboretum is not helping you with your chatter, don’t do it again, try another tool, It’s like, you try a new exercise. And if the exercise works, you do it; if you don’t like it, you stop.

What books have you found yourself thinking a lot about recently?

One book that I keep on recommending, assigning, and re-reading myself is Victor Frankl’s 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning. And I read that, and I think it’s such a powerful read for a few different reasons. The book is a story about a person who lost everything in the Holocaust. Before the war, Viktor Frankl had been a successful psychiatrist, but then the Nazis killed his family and put him in a concentration camp. He managed to make it through and what allowed him to make it through was finding meaning in his life. I think there’s a message there about how powerful the ability to make meaning is. But it’s also a reminder of how difficult it can be to find that meaning.

STILL CURIOUS?

Buy the book: Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It

Take the quiz on Ethan Kross’s website to see how well you know your inner voice.

Learn more about Kross and his colleagues’ research on topics like meaning-making, self-talk, social rejection and emotional intelligence at the University of Michigan’s Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory.