Apr. 17, 2005 ITHACA, N.Y. -- Trying to lose weight, be less nervous when speaking publicly or improve in some other way? One strategy that can help is to switch your point of view from the first-person to a third-person perspective when reviewing your progress, according to a series of studies conducted at Cornell University.
"We have found that perspective can influence your interpretation of past events. In a situation in which change is likely, we find that observing yourself as a third person -- looking at yourself from an outside observer's perspective -- can help accentuate the changes you've made more than using a first-person perspective," says Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell. When people perceive change, they get some satisfaction from their efforts, which, in turn, can give them more motivation to keep on working toward a personal goal, he says.
Gilovich and former graduate students Lisa K. Libby, Cornell Ph.D. '03 and an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, and Richard Eibach, Cornell Ph.D. '03 and an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, conducted a series of studies to examine the effects of memory perspective on perceiving personal change. Their work is published in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 88, No. 1, 2005).
The social psychologists asked participants to picture a particular event from their lives either from a first-person or third-person perspective. The volunteers then evaluated how much they thought they had changed since the event had occurred.
For example, in one study 38 college students who had been in psychotherapy were asked either to recall their first appointment through their own eyes (first person) or "from an observer's visual perspective" (third person). Those who recalled their appointment from a third-person perspective reported that they had made significantly more progress in treatment than did those who took a first-person perspective.
The researchers also found that memory perspective can affect behavior. They recruited college students who said they had been socially awkward in high school and asked them to visualize an occasion of their social awkwardness either from a first- or third-person perspective. Not only were those who recalled their awkwardness from a third-person perspective more likely to say they had changed, but they also were more likely to be more socially adept -- initiating conversations, for example -- just after the experiment when they did not know they were being observed.
"When participants recalled past awkwardness from a third-person perspective, they felt they had changed and were now more socially skilled," said Libby, the first author of the study. "That led them to behave more sociably and appear more socially skilled to the research assistant."
Gilovich points out, however, that a third-person perspective accentuates perceived changes when people seeking self-improvement are focused on differences between their present and past selves. But when the volunteers were asked to focus on similarities from the past by visualizing a past event that was positive, such as something they were proud of, the third-person perspective tended to promote perceptions of continuity between the present self and a positive past self.
"In other words, recalling memories from a third-person perspective produces judgments of greater self-change when people are inclined to look for evidence of change, but lesser self-change when they are inclined to look for similarities from the past or evidence of continuity," concludes Gilovich.
The research suggests that the saying, "It depends on how you look at it," has literal truth when it comes to assessing personal change.
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