Self-Distancing Reduces Aggression

Someone has just boiled your blood. How do you regain composure? We tend to dwell on and imagine everything happening to ourselves again. Unfortunately, this will only intensify negative feelings. But luckily, psychologists have found a simple trick to help you regain self-control in the heat of the moment—imagine yourself as a fly on the wall, visualise and replay the conflict unfold from a distance from a third-person perspective.

Reflecting on our feelings and thoughts after being annoyed by someone or something is believed to help us come to terms with the problem and hence reduce aggression. But the most important element—how to reflect—is often ignored. Researchers believed that the common strategy of reviewing from a self-immersed (first-person) perspective will allow you to re-experience the negative feelings but will not help you resolve them.

Distraction is another common and effective anger-management strategy. However, it is often not practicable as we usually still have to continue to interact with that obnoxious bloke at the other side of the table even though he has just infuriated us. At such a moment, you can rely on self-distancing (visualise and reflect on the situation, your feelings, and thoughts from a third-person point of view) to prevent yourself from giving him a punch in the face.

University students were provoked by experimenters in the name of science. They participated in studies that investigated the ‘effects of music on problem solving, creativity, and emotions’. Intense classical music was in reality used to distract and annoy the participants while they solved problems. Experimenters further provoked them by repeatedly saying over the intercom with an impatient tone that they could not hear the participants’ correct answers (“Look, this is the third time I have to say this! Can’t you follow directions? Speak louder!”).

Participants were then asked to reflect on the situation from either a self-immersed (first-person) or self-distanced (third-person) perspective. It was found that self-distancing reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and even aggressive behaviours. On the other hand, the self-immersion strategy which we intuitively and generally rely on increased aggressive thoughts and anger.

Imaging yourself as a fly on the wall while your blood is boiling certainly seems to be an effective strategy to manage anger and aggression, but researchers are not too sure whether self-distancing will work for people who have severe difficulties regulating anger and aggression. Still, this simple strategy is worth a try for all of us. Who knows, maybe it can help resolve other negative feelings as well? Also, now we know how and why flies simmer down so quickly despite being constantly swatted at.

What strategies do you use to manage your negative feelings? Share them below.

Mischkowski, D., Kross, E., & Bushman, B. J. (2012). Flies on the wall are less aggressive: Self-distancing “in the heat of the moment” reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and aggressive behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(5), 1187-1191. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.03.012


6 thoughts on “Self-Distancing Reduces Aggression

    • Hope it’ll work! It’d be great if you could comment on whether it has worked for you in the future. And thanks for reading!

  1. I must try that!! Another person has told me that as a way to prevent negative feelings such as anxiousness or anger when facing a another person, is to imagine that they are tiny , with heads bigger than the rest of their body, jumping up and down… ;p that way you view a situation on a funny side and that helps control the negative feelings! What i usualy do is sing… that seems to distract my brain somehow, and so i do not explode when i am angry!! 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments Katia. Distracting yourself and trying to laugh at the situation sound like good strategies, but according to the authors, sometimes you just can’t distract yourself if you still have to deal with the person or thing that have annoyed you. Also, it seems that in order to resolve all the negative feelings within us, we need to ‘re-experience’ the situation from a different angle.

      Still, different strategies work for different people and what you have suggested may actually be most effective for some people.

      Thanks for sharing again.

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