This week’s conversation is with Dr. Ethan Kross, one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind.

After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, Ethan earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in social-affective neuroscience to learn about the neural systems that support self-control.

He moved to the University of Michigan in 2008, where he founded the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory.

As an award-winning professor in the University of Michigan’s top-ranked Psychology Department and its Ross School of Business, Ethan studies how the conversations people have with themselves impact their health, performance, decisions, and relationships.

And Ethan just published his first book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It.

I’d be surprised if anyone listening hasn’t experienced what Ethan describes as “Chatter.”

That process where you have a thought such as, “Why did I screw up this shot or presentation at work?” But rather than just identify how to fix it and move on, you keep getting stuck.

Our ability to reflect on what we’re doing, learn from our experiences and optimize how we navigate the world is an incredibly powerful tool, but that introspective capacity can also steer us off course.

Ruminating and getting stuck in this cycle of negative thinking can make life miserable, so in this conversation, we discuss what to do when you find yourself stuck in that cycle.

“What we’ve learned is that there’s a whole toolbox of skills that people can use to manage that time they spend in their head. And different tools work for different people in different situations.”

In This Episode:

What gets him excited

Not only rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty doing research, but when I’m thinking about how we can use what we learn to actually make a difference in people’s lives. In my lab, the way we figure out what kinds of projects to do, we ask ourselves two questions, “Does this project have a potential to really advance our understanding of how people work in some way? Or, does it have the potential to substantially improve people’s lives in some way?” And so, I’ve always been really interested in that application component, and I think talking to folks like yourself who are on the frontline, so to speak, is a way of doing that.

Which topic interested him most?

Studying the ability to control ourselves, but not necessarily when it comes to controlling the impulse to eat a cookie or not, but rather, how can we control our minds when we find our minds running off course? And so, I’ve always been interested in introspection, which I think is such an amazing tool, our ability to reflect on what we’re doing to learn from our experiences and optimize how we navigate the world, how we perform, think, feel. But that introspective capacity, as I know you know, often runs off course. People try to reflect on, “Hey, why did I screw up this shot, or swing, or presentation at work?” And rather than just identify how to fix it and then move on, people end up getting stuck. They ruminate, they worry, they catastrophize, they engage in what I call chatter, which is what I wrote this book on, which is getting stuck in this cycle of negative thinking, and feeling that can really make life miserable.

How does he define self-control?

I think, many people, when they think of self-control, they think, how do you refrain from alcohol or unprotected sex? Or how do you diet? I think that’s one facet of self-control. But the definition I use is a lot broader. So, I think self-control is about aligning your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors with your goals. And that covers a big, big, vast terrain. So, that’s about, if I don’t want to feel depressed, if my goal is to not be depressed, or anxious, or angry, self-control is about aligning how I think, feel, and behave to meet that goal. If my goal is to outperform the other person on the football field or in the boxing ring, self-control is about making that happen. So, it really opens up the kinds of questions we can ask to a lot broader set of phenomena.

Why introspection is a double-edged sword

A lot of research suggests that introspection, as you suggested before, doesn’t help people. It actually hurts them. And so, this, for me, became a gigantic puzzle. I became super motivated to try and figure out, why does introspection help some people some of the time, kill us in other situations? And how can we resolve that puzzle? And that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out for the past 20 years. The dark side of introspection.

How do we better manage emotions?

Once an emotion is triggered, that is a potent, potent response. It is a coordinated response that begins in your brain and leashes a cascade of biochemical reactions that course then throughout your body, feedback to your brain to at least at the first phase, to try to prepare you for dealing with what is presenting itself in the world in front of you. Now, where we have the ability to get to intervene is, I think we have the capacity to channel that response to decrease its amplitude, how strongly it’s triggered. We also have the ability to shorten it, to prevent it from staying active for a really long period of time. People often think of stress as like a killer. I think that’s not actually true. Stress, in and of itself, a stress reaction is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. You want to be able to quickly mobilize yourself for a threat in front of you. When stress becomes dangerous and killer is when that stress response gets triggered, and then it stays elevated, it stays activated over time. That exerts a wear and tear on our bodies that lots of research shows is harmful. And I think what we have the capacity need to do is to shorten that stress response. And the same is true for other kinds of emotional experiences.

We’re not always capable of being present

We’re not built to be in the moment all the time. And in fact, if you look at studies that try to index, how much time are people in general spending in the moment? They’re between a third and a half of our waking life, we’re not in the moment, we’re in our heads. We’re either effectively working through our experiences and our problems, or I’d argue, more of the time, we’re getting stuck, as you’re describing. So, we’re spending a huge amount of waking life in our heads. And I think if you’re going to spend that much time in that space, let’s try to think about how we can optimize the time we’re in there.

Why it’s easier to give advice to others

One idea that I think can be powerful is the idea, we call it Solomon’s paradox. It’s the idea that we are much better at giving advice to other people than we are following that advice ourselves. I think this is a truism of the human experience. When I give talks to people, I often ask, “Has a friend ever come to you with a problem that they’re spinning over, they’re ruminating, they’re worrying, they’re catastrophizing, they don’t know what to do, and they present the problem to you, and it’s relatively easy for you to coach them through that experience?” And invariably, a sea of hands go up in the auditoriums. What we’ve learned is that we possess tools that can help us think about our own problems and our own self like we were another person. And that gives us distance, it gives us mental space, that can be really useful for improving the way we feel, performing better, and thinking better.

How to better manage the voice in your head — Use Your Name

Talk to yourself silently like you are someone else. Use your name. We call this distance self-talk. It involves coaching yourself through a problem like you were coaching someone else, and actually, use your name to do it. Language itself is a really powerful tool for changing our perspective. Words can channel the way we think. And if you think about like, when do you use names? Nine times out of 10, you use names when you’re thinking about and referring to another person. So, if you use your name to think about yourself, it’s almost like a psychological jujitsu move. It changes your perspective on your problems. It’s getting you to think about your problems from a more objective standpoint, like they’re happening to another person. And so, that’s one concrete tool you can use.

How to better manage the voice in your head — Order and Organization

there are studies which show that by ordering our spaces, by making them tidy and neat, that gives us a sense of order and organization, which we’re often lacking when the chatter is brewing inside. And it helps. When you’re struggling, organize your spaces, try to put things in order. That serves a compensatory function. And so, that’s just one other way of using the world around us, our physical spaces, to help us. There are other things people could do too, green space exposure, seeking out our inspiring experiences. These are all different tools that science has revealed, that can be very helpful for managing what’s happening inside our heads.

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