We all talk to ourselves

Before the heist begins, Mr Orange, played by Tim Roth, assures himself that he has convinced his hoodlum conspirators of his undercover identity.  Staring in the mirror, he intones: “You’re Barretta.  They believe every word because you’re super-cool.” And until the end of the movie at least, Mr Orange’s incantations work: he convinces himself, and his multi-coloured brethren, of his identity. Reservoir Dogs may end in his death, but nonetheless, punters can learn something from Mr Orange’s mantra.

We all talk to ourselves. For most of us this self-talk is internal and chaotic: what is likely a random monologue of thoughts that help us navigate our lives. If, however, we make this self-talk intentional and purposeful, researchers have found that it can have a significant effect on subsequent performance.

How to Advance your performance

A 2014 study by Kross and his colleagues found that the simple technique of shifting self-talk from first-person pronouns (like “I”), to other options (the second-person “you”, or even naming yourself in the third-person), positively affected how people performed in both social interactions and public speaking. Study participants who practiced the recommended “self-distancing” before giving a presentation were rated more highly by observers, felt more confident in themselves, and were less likely to subsequently view the events negatively.

Mr Orange goes a step further than self-distancing, though, by shifting his self-talk from the internal to the external: he says it out-loud. And with good reason, because this kind of motivational, external self-talk has been found to have a dramatic effect on physical performance.

In numerous studies, participants who have been told to repeat affirming self-distancing statements out-loud have improved their physical attainment: basketball players pass the ball faster; gym goers complete more push-ups; runners and cyclists endure for longer; and tennis players perform forehand drives with faster reaction times. In the case of Mr Orange, the technique even helps you convince hoodlums that you’re not an undercover cop, apparently.

Punters do not, however, require improved physical prowess. In most cases, in fact, the opposite is true: punters need to be more deliberate and cautious in their actions. The body of research on external self-talk should not be rejected, though, because within it is worthwhile guidance.

Be more objective about the data

In many of the studies, a pattern emerges which shows that motivational self-talk, whilst improving someone’s speed, strength, and endurance, is largely ineffective when it comes to physical movements requiring skill and accuracy.

A swimmer wanting to improve the efficiency of their stroke, for example, or a basketball player wanting to improve the accuracy of their passing, is not helped by chanting self-affirming statements of the sort, “You’re a fish, gliding through the water,” or “You’re a titan, dominating the court”. This external self-talk might lead to a bump in performance overall, but skill levels will likely not increase.

Instead, the external self-talk needs to be instructional. Change those statements to “You will put your arm to your ear” and “You will step towards your receiver”, and the effect is significant: swimmers improve their backstroke technique and basketball players make more accurate passes. It’s in this instructional, external self-talk that punters should be interested.

In many of these articles, we have explored the difficulties that our mal-evolved brains present us with when betting. For example, they cause us to bias information that we discover first or last, undervaluing everything else; they cause us to only seek information that confirms what we already believe; and they make us see patterns in even the scantest data.

The recommendation for overcoming these cognitive shortcomings has been consistent throughout: if we design a process that forces us to be more objective about the data we have, we can silence the nonsense in our heads.

These techniques work

The problem with processes, though, is that whilst we might be good at designing them, we may not be great at following them once we have. And this is where instructional, external self-talk can help. Constant out-loud repetition of phrases like, “You will always create tissue odds before placing a bet”, can help us stick to our best intentions.

We can take it further, too, creating phrases that we can incant at every step of the process: “You will import the runners into a separate spreadsheet”, “You will import their master speed rating”, “You will convert this…”

Surgeons, asked to practise instructional, external self-talk whilst completing complex operating procedures, make fewer mistakes.

The reasons why these techniques work is not entirely clear, but some researchers suggest that they help us create distance from ourselves, allowing us to see the world more objectively. In other words, they help us step back from the cognitive hard wiring that creates the kinds of biases that we have explored.


So, if you want to go undercover in a criminal gang, or improve your forehand, kill fewer people on the operating table, or just stop having those bets that you always regret later, then self-talk might be the way forward: just be sure to drop the “I” and say it out-loud.

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