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The perfect (chatter) storm

Did you say something?

Tell a stranger that you talk to yourself, and you’re likely to get written off as eccentric. But the truth is we all have a voice in our head.

In this presentation from the ISR Insights series, professor Ethan Kross discusses his new book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It (Random House, 2021). Interweaving behavioral and brain research from his Emotion & Self-Control Lab with colorful real-world case studies, the researcher explains how these conversations shape our lives, work, and relationships.

“When we experience problems, we tend to focus inward to make sense of them and to find solutions,” Kross says. “But those attempts to turn inward often backfire. We end up ruminating, worrying, and catastrophizing over negative experiences — past, future, or things we’re going through right now. I call that ‘chatter.’ It’s that feeling of getting stuck. We’re trying to find a solution but we’re not getting there.”

Kross is one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind. He has participated in policy discussions at the White House, and his research has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New England Journal of Medicine, and Science.

The following presentation by the Institute for Social Research was sponsored by Ann Arbor’s Literati bookstore. It features Kross in conversation with colleague Dave Mayer, the John H. Mitchell Professor in Business Ethics and professor of management and organizations at Michigan Ross.

As Kross tells Mayer in the video below, the events of 2020-21 created the ‘perfect chatter storm’ in our heads.

A toolbox approach works best

‘Going inside’

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVE MAYER: You’ve described the past year’s events as creating the ‘perfect chatter storm.’ Describe what you mean by chatter, and what can we do to manage it?

ETHAN KROSS: I started writing this book about four years ago and if you had asked me at the outset of that process to give you the ingredients for the ‘perfect chatter storm’ for the planet, I’d describe what we’ve been living through for the past year: A once-in-a-century-pandemic, economic uncertainty, political discord, isolation. We have a lot of problems to think about and a lot of time to think about them. Anxiety and depression is three times what it was this time last year.

I believe in a ‘toolbox approach’ to coping. There’s no one magic bullet. You want to use different combinations of tools to really help yourself feel better. In one nationally representative sample, we measured subjects’ anxiety every day for two weeks. We asked them to report which of 17 different healthy and unhealthy strategies they used each day. We found people tended to use combinations of coping strategies. And the findings were actually compelling: The people in our study who used the healthiest combination of coping strategies experienced, on average, a 32 percent reduction in daily anxiety, compared to folks who used the most unhealthy blend of strategies.

Some of the healthiest things were exercise and focusing on the big picture — thinking about how you’re going to feel six months from now when the pandemic ends and we’re all vaccinated.

One of the unhealthiest strategies we found was venting, despite the very strong popular belief that it’s a good thing. There’s a ton of science that suggests venting alone doesn’t actually improve our chatter and in some cases can make it worse. We found evidence for that in the study.

Q: But what about the conventional wisdom that sometimes we need to blow off some steam?

A: Let me just be super clear: Expressing your emotions serves a valuable function. But that is not the only thing you want to do when you’re struggling with chatter. You want to express and then take the next step to reframe. And I think knowing about these principles of what makes conversations work puts people in a better position to try to seek out the right people to give them support. I’m really deliberate about who I talk to.

Based on the science, how we talk to people can make a big difference. Find someone who will allow you to express what you’re feeling. Knowing there’s someone who’s willing to listen to us, empathize with us, does wonders for our relationship. It makes us feel close and connected. It enhances our friendship bonds and leads us to feel good in the moment. But ideally, the person you are talking to will help you reframe the problem, to subtly shift how you’re thinking about this experience and get you out of just dwelling on the negativity, which perpetuates the chatter.

Q: What do you say to people who feel overwhelmed by too many possibilities in the toolbox?

A: Science has done really well up to this point studying the individual strategies. So we know how the individual strategies work under different conditions for different people, what the mechanisms of action are (i.e., exercise, rituals, meditation). We are just beginning to study how these strategies come together, how they combine, and how they interact. In the book, we provide a healthiness score for these 17 tools that we studied and show different combinations of tools that tended to work for people in the sample.

The clusters of tools we discovered were really unique. There was no model in the literature that would have predicted that things like exercise and mental time-travel and affectionately interacting with others would cluster together in a certain way. I think there will be some unique insights that people will have when they look at some of these data.

For me, when it comes to COVID, there are four things I do: I think about the big picture in the future, I talk to my chatter adviser, I go for walks in nature, and I do a ritual.

I wish I had the science to convey the exact blend of strategies that you should use. But the empirical basis for making that recommendation doesn’t yet exist. So in the absence of that science,  my suggestion is to experiment. See which tools work best for you in which situations. There is a bit of self-discovery there, which I know might be unsettling for more scientifically oriented people. The exciting thing is that there’s a lot more for us to learn.

Q: Talk a little bit about where your relationship with your dad and how his advice to kind of ‘go inside’ has shaped your work.

A: I had a dad who encouraged me to introspect when I experienced problems from a remarkably young age. I would, by and large, be successful in that introspective exercise. I didn’t really get stuck ruminating or experiencing chatter throughout my childhood or adolescence. And then I got to college and learned this tool I had valued and benefited from was not serving other people very well. That struck me as fantastically interesting. Why is it that some people some of the time really benefit from turning their attention inward to work through their problems and using language to do so, whereas other people crumble when they do the exact same thing? So the book really talks about what we’ve learned over the past 20 years surrounding this big puzzle of introspection.

The inner voice is part of what we call “the verbal working memory system.” It’s a crucial component of how the mind works. We can use the inner voice to simulate and plan. It also helps us control ourselves. And, we use the inner voice to make sense of who we are and what we experience. Chatter is a negative byproduct of an otherwise exceptionally valuable tool.

Understanding the science behind these tools can make us much more deliberate about how we use them. For example, research shows you can benefit from green space exposure just by watching videos of lush green terrain or having plants around your home, or even hearing nature sounds. This allows us to replenish our limited attention, which is often consumed when we’re worrying about something or ruminating. It also can promote the experience of awe, which is an amazing chatter-fighting tool.

When you’re in the presence of something vast that you can’t explain, you and your own concerns feel a whole lot smaller by comparison, and that can help us rein in our chatter.

Q: One tool you cite is ‘distant self-talk’ and this concept of Solomon’s Paradox. Can you explain how that works?

A: Solomon’s Paradox is the concept that it’s much easier for people to give advice to others than it is to take their own advice. King Solomon was a wise leader who was not so wise when it came to his personal life. Fundamentally, Solomon’s Paradox illustrates that when we have distance from a problem it’s easier for us to weigh in on it objectively. We find that when people are under stress, if you cue them to use their own name in solving the problem, it helps them perform better, leads them to ruminate less. You see the effects in their brain and their body.

Q: Is there one sort of overarching takeaway you can leave us with?

A: If you experience chatter, welcome to the club. Most of us do. It can have negative effects on our work, on our relationships, and our health. But tools exist to manage it. I think of these tools as falling into three buckets. There are tools you can use on your own; tools that involve our relationships with other people and how to harness those relationships to our betterment; and environmental tools, i.e., ways of interacting with our physical spaces to help us. And within those buckets, there are lots of different techniques and combinations.

Looking at how all these tools come together as we live our lives is not something we understand very well yet. I think it’s a question that’s central to understanding human nature. Being able to answer that question will put us in a position to help people much more than we can right now.

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