News, Academics

Kross Dissects the Psychology of the Inner Voice

We as humans spend between one-half and one-third of our waking hours not focused on the present moment, according to Ethan Kross, professor of psychology and management & organizations at the University of Michigan. 

“That’s a lot of time talking to a proverbial asshole if that’s the voice that you encounter when you drift away,” Kross said. 

Kross, author of the best-selling book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness It, gave a talk at Boston College on Tuesday in which he explained the role of the inner voice and how to effectively manage it.

According to Kross, the inner voice can be a practical tool to plan effectively for the future, like when preparing for an important presentation.

“What I’m doing is I’m trying to prepare myself for a stressful encounter if it would occur,” Kross said. 

In addition to preparing for the future, channeling the inner voice can play a role in shaping a sense of self and forming identity, Kross said.

“We try to make sense of what we are going through,” Kross said. “What’s happening there is that we’re using our voice to really find meaning and purpose in our experiences.”

But while the inner voice poses practical benefits, it can also pose the problem of overthinking—this is when the inner voice becomes “chatter,” according to Kross. 

“You don’t make any progress whatsoever,” Kross said. “You just keep digging yourself deeper and deeper into a hole.”

Kross noted that constant and heightened “chatter” can cause physical harm to the body. 

“What does make stress truly toxic is when your stress response gets activated and then remains chronically activated over time,” Kross said. “That exerts a wear and tear on your body that is physically damaging.”

Kross said “chatter” can also negatively affect interpersonal relationships.

“There are instances where people who genuinely care about you, they tend to pull away because there is only so much they can bear before you start to bring them down,” Kross said.

The good news, Kross said, is that the concept of “chatter” is well-researched by scientists and there are a variety of psychological tools that can be used to manage it effectively.

“These are things you can do on your own—basic shifts in the way you think about your circumstances—that can push you down totally different trajectories when it comes to talking to yourself,” Kross said. 

Kross used the example of Malala Yousafzai, who he said addresses herself by her own name and second-person pronouns while coaching herself through challenging situations. 

“What this does in your mind is it turns on a mental machinery to think about someone else, so it’s shifting your perspective,” Kross said. “It’s putting you in advice-giving mode, which can be really, really helpful for thinking through a problem or objective.” 

Kross also said that an overactive mind can be tempered through the tool of “mental time travel.”

“No matter how bad ‘the chatter’ is at 2 a.m., it is always better the next morning when my brain is fully awake and we think about things more constructively,” Kross said. 

Kross concluded his talk by emphasizing the importance of fostering healthy relationships and finding outlets to talk about “chatter.”

“The idea is to have a roadmap for how to steer those conversations and how to find people you should talk to about your ‘chatter,’” Kross said. 

April 17, 2024