This week, The New York Times published an op-ed by author Ben Dolnick asking whether President Donald Trump’s habit of talking in the third person is actually “an intuitive grasp of the subtlest Buddhist teachings.” At the very end, Dolnick says he (well, “Ben” — the article itself is written in third person) highly doubts that Trump is an “accidental Buddhist,” as the headline states. But rest of the piece argues that talking in the third person shouldn’t get a bad rap just because the president does it.
Fair enough. There is research supporting the advantages of talking in the third person, but that research doesn’t apply to doing it Trump-style.
One of the key tenets of Buddhism is the importance of destroying the ego. The man who calls himself “your favorite president,” challenges his own staff to IQ tests, and screams that he is “a pro at life” is further away from destroying his ego than most children. Trump uses the third person more like the royal we, which is traditionally adopted by rulers to indicate that they are speaking not just personally, but as the leader of a nation, and that they understand the power that has been bestowed upon them. The question of whether Trump deploys the royal we correctly will be left as an exercise to the reader.
In the study, and in therapies, people are asked to talk to themselves — silently.
Trump aside, Dolnick isn’t wrong that while talking in the third person seems pompous, it can offer psychological benefits. He explains that using the third person prevents you from identifying too much with your emotions, which is a Buddhist teaching that is consistent with much contemporary psychological research. Much of our emotional distress is caused by being too egocentric, and the linguistic switch of using third person can provide much-needed perspective.
For example, one study from July, published in Scientific Reports, argued that using the third person can be a simple trick for coping with stressful emotions. In a series of studies, researchers monitored the brains of volunteers who spoke about themselves while reflecting on negative emotions, using either “I” or their own name. Brain scans showed that the third person provided psychological distance and decreased their emotional brain activity when compared to using the first person. The authors conclude that talking in the third person may be “a relatively effortless form of self-control.”
This type of linguistic distance is a key component of many mindfulness-based cognitive therapies. These therapies, including dialectical behavioral therapy, remind us that emotions are transient experiences that come and go, and we don’t need to take them so seriously. “Angela is feeling angry” lets us evaluate a situation more coolly — the way we would help a friend — than “I am feeling angry.” If my friend Angela told me she was angry at a rude passenger, I would tell her to forget about it and move on. If I ruminate on how I was slighted by a rude passenger this morning, I will want blood.
There is one key difference between these therapies and what Trump is doing. In the study, and in therapies, people are asked to talk to themselves — silently. It’s a form of self-reflection, not a means of bloviating. Trump is the opposite of silent and the very opposite of an accidental Buddhist.