Ethan Kross: The Psychology of Self-Talk

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Chatter" by Ethan Kross. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

What exactly is self-talk in psychology? Is self-talk just another word for our thoughts?

According to neuroscientist and psychologist Ethan Kross, self-talk isn’t exactly our conscious thought process. Rather, it’s the voice you “hear” in your mind in the background.

Here’s why we engage in self-talk, how it manifests, and how social and cultural factors influence its content.

Why Do We Engage in Self-Talk?

According to Kross, self-talk must be evolutionarily beneficial—otherwise, this habit wouldn’t have persisted into modern times. He surmises that our ancestors who engaged in self-talk were more likely to survive and therefore pass this habit down to future generations.

(Shortform note: Kross’s claim that self-talk must have supported our ancestors’ survival reflects a common misconception about evolution: that all of our current traits are evolutionary adaptations. While some of our traits did evolve because they supported our survival (such as the ability to digest milk), some of our other traits arose and stuck around for other reasons. For example, some traits arose from random mutations that occur when our DNA copies, and some of these mutations are neutral—meaning they neither improve nor harm our chances of survival. Self-talk could be a neutral mutation.)

The Neuroscience of Self-Talk

What happens in your brain when you’re engaging in self-talk? Kross shares three facts about the psychology of self-talk.

Fact 1: You Can Multitask While Engaging in Self-Talk. According to Kross, you have a system in your brain called the phonological loop that allows you to engage in self-talk while doing other things. Your phonological loop has two jobs it can do simultaneously: 1) It temporarily stores verbal information, such as something you’ve just heard or read, and 2) it allows you to silently think in the form of words.

Fact 2: Our Self-Talk Is Lightning-Fast. Second, Kross cites a study revealing that our self-talk happens remarkably fast. Our internal voice “speaks” at a rate close to four thousand words per minute. Reading four thousand words aloud would take at least 15 minutes.

Fact 3: Everyone Engages in Self-Talk. Third, Kross elaborates that everyone engages in self-talk to some degree, even people who don’t express themselves out loud. For instance, deaf signers report having an internal voice.

Social and Cultural Forces That Shape Self-Talk

Although our capacity for self-talk is hard-wired into our brains, it’s also shaped by the world outside our heads. Kross argues that our upbringing and culture influence our self-talk. We internalize the voices of those around us, especially those of our parents. Their voices usually reflect larger cultural beliefs. 

For instance, imagine that your culture has the following social norm: Refrain from displaying intense emotions around strangers. While growing up, your parents repeatedly reminded you of this norm. Over time, you internalized their vocal reminders. Now, their words are part of your self-talk, reminding you to be emotionally reserved in public.

Self-Talk Also Manifests as an Imagined Dialogue

Throughout his book, Kross’s examples of self-talk mostly take the form of a single voice that enters your mind. In The Voices Within, psychologist Charles Fernyhough claims that some people experience self-talk as multiple voices engaged in a conversation, such as a conversation between themselves and someone they know. Let’s reimagine what the aforementioned examples might be like for someone who experiences self-talk in this way:

– After you say something awkward to your date, you imagine a conversation between them and their friend in which they rant about how awkward you were.

– Before you share your idea in a meeting, you mentally review what you’ll say and imagine how people will respond to your ideas.

– After you meet someone, you mentally replay your conversation so you don’t forget their name and what they said.
Ethan Kross: The Psychology of Self-Talk

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Ethan Kross's "Chatter" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Chatter summary:

  • How negative self-talk interferes with your happiness, health, and success
  • Research-based strategies for managing negative self-talk
  • Four actionable tips for quieting your internal cynic

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *