The fly on the horse: Self-distancing

Imagine an intervention with the following benefits:

  • Improves relationships
  • Reduces anxiety and depression
  • Reduces feelings of aggression
  • Reduces cognitive biases
  • Reduces life-threatening stress
  • Increases intellectual humility
  • Increases awareness of others' perspectives
  • Improves conflict resolutionThe latter three are from preprint article: Grossmann, Igor; Dorfman, Anna; Oakes, Harrison; Vohs, Kathleen D.; Santos, Henri Carlo; Scholer, Abigail. "Training for Wisdom: The Illeist Diary Method"doi:10.31234/
  • Reduces the wisdom gap between younger and older people

What if you also know that the intervention is simple and free?  Would you be interested?  

This article is part of a series.  You may wish to read the introductory article if you haven't already.

The intervention, also known as illeism (ill-ee-is-m) is, in fact, extremely simple.  It primarily involves thinking about oneself using a third-person perspective.

How can it be so easy?

This process, most commonly referred to as self-distancing, has a vast body of scientific evidence in its favor.  

The principle is simple:  When we consider a situation from our own perspective, we are immersed in the emotions and consequences associated with the situation.  By simply referring to ourselves in the third person, we distance ourselves mentally and allow ourselves to have a cooler, calmer perspective.  It is simple, but the benefits are profound, and better yet, they are backed by evidence.

Let's examine the evidence for some of the above benefits, and then we'll look at how we can put this to work.

The benefits of self-distancing

Counteracts depression

Reacting emotionally to daily stressors tends to predict anxiety and depression "up to a decade into the future," according to Emma Bruehlman-Senecal and Ozlem Ayduk.Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & Ayduk, O. (2015). This too shall pass: Temporal distance and the regulation of emotional distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(2), 356–375.  According to another paper on the subject, "The use of first-person singular pronouns is also associated with maladaptive health outcomes, such as depressive symptoms."Park, J., Ayduk, Ö., & Kross, E. (2015, October 12). Stepping Back to Move Forward: Expressive Writing Promotes Self-Distancing. Emotion. Advance online publication. In another study, the same authors pointed out that the regions typically activated in the brains of depressed persons are less active in individuals who are self-distancing."Kross and colleagues (Kross, Davidson, Weber, & Ochsner, 2009) found that when participants reflected over negative experiences using a distancing strategy that was conceptually similar to the one used in our behavioral research, they displayed less activity in a network of cortical midline regions (including subgenual cingulate cortex) than when they reflected concretely on their emotions from an immersed perspective. Interestingly, depressed individuals display increased activity in a similar set of regions at rest (Greicius et al., 2007)." Kross, E., & Ayduk, O. (2011). Making Meaning out of Negative Experiences by Self-Distancing. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(3), 187–191. doi:10.1177/0963721411408883

Counteracts anxiety

According to another study by Bruehlman-Senecal, Ayduk, and others, "Self-distancing manipulations may be useful in helping people cope not only with depression and anger related to ruminating over the past but also social anxiety surrounding the future."Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., Bremner, R., Moser, J., & Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 304–324. 

Improves relationships

All relationships involve a degree of friction, but the way we react can determine whether the relationship will survive the test of time.  A 2012 study found that self-distancing can reduce angry thoughts and aggressive behavior that often occur "in the heat of the moment."Mischkowski, D., Kross, E., & Bushman, B. J. (2012). Flies on the wall are less aggressive: Self-distancing “in the heat of the moment” reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and aggressive behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(5), 1187–1191. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.03.012  The study involved instructing participants to either revisit the situation from their own perspective or to watch the event as if it were happening again, but from a distance.  Those who received the latter instructions showed less aggression than the control group.

Can reduce cognitive biases

A 2018 study took another look at the well-documented effects of cognitive biases based on the pioneering work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.  They replicated the results of the landmark study with their control group, where "participants exhibited biases of overweighting small probabilities and underweighting large probabilities."  They add, "Importantly, we found that when participants used a self-distancing strategy to regulate their reasoning, their probability weighting functions exhibited less curvature. These findings suggest that self-distancing can reduce the probability weighting biases."Sun, Q., Zhang, H., Sai, L., & Hu, F. (2018). Self-Distancing Reduces Probability-Weighting Biases. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00611

Reduces the wisdom gap between young and old

A study with 693 participants undertook to answer the question, "Are people wiser when reflecting on other people’s problems compared with their own?"  The authors concluded: "Contrary to the adage 'with age comes wisdom,' our findings suggest that there are no age differences in wise reasoning about personal conflicts, and that the effects of self-distancing generalize across age cohorts."Grossmann, I., & Kross, E. (2014). Exploring Solomon’s Paradox: Self-Distancing Eliminates the Self-Other Asymmetry in Wise Reasoning About Close Relationships in Younger and Older Adults. Psychological Science, 25(8), 1571–1580. doi:10.1177/0956797614535400  The study authors speculated that older people are less angry than young people, in general, not because they cope better with conflict but because they are more adept at avoiding it.  They concluded, "Older adults benefited from self-distancing just as much as younger adults did, which suggests that wise reasoning is also malleable in older age."

Improves physical health

Although a direct link between self-distancing and physical health hasn't been clearly found, there are indications that the two are connected.  It is well-known that evidence of prolonged stress, such as elevated blood pressure, can have a damaging effect on health.  A 2010 study concluded:

The results showed that participants in the self-distanced group displayed significantly lower levels of blood pressure reactivity (elevations relative to baseline) compared to the self-immersed group both during the analysis and the recovery periods of the experiment. These findings extend the beneficial effects of self-distancing to physiological indices of stress that have relevance for physical health outcomes. Furthermore, they demonstrate that the beneficial effect of self-distancing is not restricted to the thin slice of time during which participants are told to analyze their emotions; rather it has implications for how people feel over time.Özlem Ayduk, Ethan Kross, Analyzing Negative Experiences Without Ruminating: The Role of Self-Distancing in Enabling Adaptive Self-Reflection, Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4/10 (2010): 841–854, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00301.x

How to do it

Some simple ways that have helped some to self-distance:

  • Picture a fly on the wall observing you going through a challenging experience.
  • Imagine being on a stage having the experience, and walking off stage into a balcony box to see it as an observer.
  • Consider how a thoughtful friend might respond to witnessing your situation.

Park, Ayduk, and Kross recommend "expressive writing" to promote self-distancing.See 2015 study cited above.  This can be as simple as writing out a narrative of a stressful event you've experienced, using the third person.

The authors explain why this works.  Constructing a coherent story requires:

  • Adopting other people’s perspectives
  • Focusing on broader contexts
  • Separating the present self as a narrator from the past self as a protagonist

Last, but not least, they consider the use of "causal principles" to be "the most fundamental characteristic of coherent stories." They conclude that reasoning on causes is more important than gaining insight into one’s negative experiences.  In other words, understanding the reasons behind the situation makes it easier to see the whole picture and not get caught up in the moment.  

The study authors also observed that those who succeeded at self-distancing used fewer negative emotion words over the course of writing.  Interestingly, they found no connection between positive emotion words and self-distancing.

In another study, the same authors conclude, "This shift in thought content leads participants who self-distance to experience less distress, and this is true regardless of whether people reflect over anger or sad experiences."Kross, E., & Ayduk, O. (2011)

People who self-distance focus less on recounting their experiences and more on reconstruing them in ways that provide insight and closure.

Two studies pointed out that only those who succeeded in looking for the "why" behind their feelings obtained beneficial effects.2011 and 2014 studies referenced above.

What would Batman do?

A study evaluating self-distancing in young children discovered that children performed better at a challenging task if they were asked to look at it from the perspective of a character they looked up to.  The child would be asked to wear a costume to facilitate the persona of a well-known hero (Batman, Dora the Explorer, Bob the Builder, or Rapunzel).  Then they were instructed, "I want you to ask yourself, 'Where does [character’s name] think this card should go?'" 

Those five-year-olds who were asked to think in this way performed at a six-year-old level, a full year's development level ahead of the control group.White, R. E., & Carlson, S. M. (2015). What would Batman do? Self-distancing improves executive function in young children. Developmental Science, 19(3), 419–426. doi:10.1111/desc.12314  So, next time you find yourself in a challenging situation, picture your hero.  What would Batman do?

Temporal distancing: Think as your future self

Besides seeing things from a fly's perspective, or from Batman's, we can also see things from a time traveler's perspective.  Participants in a study of the effects of temporal distancing on close relationships were instructed to view a difficult event as though they were looking back at it a year later. The results: "Adopting a future-oriented perspective promotes more adaptive post-conflict reasoning—fewer partner blame attributions, greater realization of insight, and forgiveness."Huynh, A. C., Yang, D. Y.-J., & Grossmann, I. (2016). The Value of Prospective Reasoning for Close Relationships. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(8), 893–902.

Another study focused on the value of looking at events from even further into the future, with an emphasis on realizing that current events are temporary and impermanent.  The authors concluded, "Adopting a distant-future perspective on stressful events reduces distress more effectively than a near-future one."Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & Ayduk, O. (2015) 

Participants benefited from this perspective regardless of whether they thought about serious stressors or merely bothersome daily stressors.  "Interestingly, adopting an impermanence focus appears to reduce distress more effectively than the strategies people naturally employ when reflecting on stressful events."

Be the fly watching the rider on the horse

We've already seen the world from a number of perspectives on our metaphorical trail ride:  The horse, the rider, the guide, and the trainer.  Now we've added another perspective.  By now, you've seen that science clearly supports the idea that we need to adopt multiple perspectives in order to get the most out of life. In the next article, we'll examine the last of the metaphorical characters in our trail ride, the handler, also known as your remembering self.


  • There are many benefits to self-distancing
    • It counteracts anxiety and depression
    • It can improve relationships
    • It can reduce cognitive biases
    • It can make young and old wiser
    • It can improve physical and mental health
  • There are different ways to practice self-distancing
    • Expressive writing helps create a useful narrative
    • Looking for the "why" is important
    • We can use a different persona to help
    • Temporal distancing involves looking at the long term

Article series

  1. A New Way to See Your Self - Take a Trail Ride to a New Identity
  2. The Map: Who Are You? Where Are You Going?
  3. The Horse Trainer: Narrate Your Life Like There's No Yesterday
  4. The Guide: Keep Your Future Out of the Trash Can (and Vice Versa)
  5. The Horse: Your Experiencing Self
  6. The Rider - Your Present Self
  7. Don't Beat the Horse

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