As a writer specialising in psychology, I’ve come across hundreds of evidence-based tips for better thinking. Few have proven as useful to me as the ancient strategy of illeism.
Put simply, illeism is the practice of talking about oneself in the third person, rather than the first person. The rhetorical device is often used by politicians to try to give their words an air of objectivity. In his account of the Gallic War, for example, the emperor Julius Caesar wrote “Caesar avenged the public” rather than “I avenged the public”. The small linguistic switch seems intended to make the statement feel a little more like historical fact, recorded by an impartial observer.
To the modern ear, illeism can sound a little silly or pompous – and we may even deride famous people who choose to talk in this way. Yet recent psychological research suggests that illeism can bring some real cognitive benefits. If we are trying to make a difficult decision, speaking about ourselves in the third person can help to neutralise the emotions that could lead our thinking astray, allowing us to find a wiser solution to our problem.
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The scientific study of wisdom has been spear-headed by Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Grossmann first drew on the work of numerous philosophers to decide on a series of “metacognitive components” – including intellectual humility, acknowledgement of others’ viewpoints and search for compromise – that are commonly considered to be essential for wise decision making.
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Grossmann’s later studies revealed that the wisdom of people’s reasoning can depend on the context. In particular, he found that their wise reasoning scores tended to be much higher when considering other people’s situations than their own personal dilemmas. Grossmann called this “Solomon’s Paradox” after the ancient Biblical king, who was famous for advising others wisely, while making a series of disastrous personal decisions that ultimately left his kingdom in chaos.
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Could illeism resolve Solomon’s paradox? The idea makes intuitive sense: by switching to the third person, our descriptions of the situation will start to sound as if we are talking about someone else rather than ourselves. This sense of detachment would allow us to see the bigger picture, rather than getting caught up in our own feelings.
And that is exactly what Grossmann found in a study with Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They showed that people employing illeism to talk about their problems showed greater intellectual humility, capacity to recognise others’ perspectives, and willingness to reach compromise – increasing their overall wise reasoning scores.