Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Training wisdom - the Illeist (third person) method.

I think my most sane moments are those when I experience myself as watching, in third-person mode, rather than “being” Deric, the immersed actor. Science journalist David Robson does an essay on this perspective in Aeon, “Why speaking to yourself in the third person makes you wiser,” noting that this ancient rhetorical method, used by Julius Caesar and termed ‘illeism’ in 1809 by the poet Coleridge (latin ille meaning ‘he, that’) can clear the emotional fog of simple rumination, shifting perspective to see past biases. Robson notes the work of Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo in Canada, whose aim is: build a strong experimental footing for the study of wisdom, which had long been considered too nebulous for scientific enquiry. In one of his earlier experiments, he established that it’s possible to measure wise reasoning and that, as with IQ, people’s scores matter. He did this by asking participants to discuss out-loud a personal or political dilemma, which he then scored on various elements of thinking long-considered crucial to wisdom, including: intellectual humility; taking the perspective of others; recognising uncertainty; and having the capacity to search for a compromise. Grossmann found that these wise-reasoning scores were far better than intelligence tests at predicting emotional wellbeing, and relationship satisfaction – supporting the idea that wisdom, as defined by these qualities, constitutes a unique construct that determines how we navigate life challenges.
The abstract from Grossmann et al.:
We tested the utility of illeism – a practice of referring to oneself in the third person – for the trainability of wisdom-related characteristics in everyday life: i) wise reasoning (intellectual humility, open-mindedness in ways a situation may unfold, perspective-taking, attempts to integrate different viewpoints) and ii) accuracy in emotional forecasts toward close others. In a month-long field experiment, people adopted either the third-person training or first-person control perspective when describing their most significant daily experiences. Assessment of spontaneous wise reasoning before and after the intervention revealed substantial growth in the training (vs. control) condition. At the end of the intervention, people forecasted their feelings toward a close other in challenging situations. A month later, these forecasted feelings were compared against their experienced feelings. Participants in the training (vs. control) condition showed greater alignment of forecasts and experiences, largely due to changes in their emotional experiences. The present research demonstrates a path to evidence-based training of wisdom-related processes via the practice of illeism.
Robson finds this work particularly fascinating,
...considering the fact that illeism is often considered to be infantile. Just think of Elmo in the children’s TV show Sesame Street, or the intensely irritating Jimmy in the sitcom Seinfeld – hardly models of sophisticated thinking. Alternatively, it can be taken to be the sign of a narcissistic personality – the very opposite of personal wisdom. After all, Coleridge believed that it was a ruse to cover up one’s own egotism: just think of the US president’s critics who point out that Donald Trump often refers to himself in the third person. Clearly, politicians might use illeism for purely rhetorical purposes but, when applied to genuine reflection, it appears to be a powerful tool for wiser reasoning.
For an example of third person usage reflecting not wisdom, but a narcissistic personality, look no further than our current president, Donald Trump, as noted in this Washington Post piece by Rieger.

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