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Developmental, Health and wellbeing

Learning more about yourself could help you better understand others

Marianne Cezza believes that a little soul searching is required to better understand the people around us.

08 September 2017

By Guest

As social creatures, accurately recognising and understanding the mental states of others (their intentions, knowledge, beliefs, etc.) is crucial to our social bonds and interactions. In fact, in today's multi-cultural world and strongly divided political climate, this skill – known as Theory of Mind – is perhaps more important than ever. A recent study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement proposes that an effective way to develop our Theory of Mind lies in learning to better understand ourselves.

Anne Böckler and colleagues, based at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, recruited 141 participants to take part in a three-month long contemplative training course that teaches people to take the perspective of the different aspects of their own personalities.

Before they started, the participants completed a test of their Theory of Mind: they watched short video clips of people describing autobiographical events, then answered a questionnaire about the storyteller's intentions, thoughts and goals.

Next, the participants were taught to identify and label six 'inner parts' or sub-personalities within themselves, for example 'the caring part', 'the inner happy child', 'the vulnerable part'. They could modify or add to this list at any time during the training course.

The course itself consisted of two key components that the participants practised daily for thirty minutes, and at a two-hour guided weekly training sessions. The first component was an 'observing-thoughts' meditation, in which participants observed their thoughts objectively,  de-identified from them (i.e. observed them in a detached way), then classified the thoughts into categories of me/other, past/future or positive/negative. The second component was a perspective-taking exercise which participants conducted in pairs, alternating between the role of speaker and listener. The speaker recounted an event from their day from the perspective of one of their randomly selected inner parts. Aware of the speaker's various inner parts, the listener had to guess which one was talking.

These perspective-taking exercises and the concept of 'inner parts' are based on the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model; an approach used in psychotherapy. The model sees an individual's personality as made up of different sub-personalities, each with its own set of behaviours, cognitions and affects.  The current study is part of a larger research project which draws from the model's principles, successfully implemented in a therapeutic setting (such as with rheumatoid arthritis patients), and applies them to a non-clinical, healthy, adult population with the aim of improving mental well-being and social intelligence.

On average, the participants in the current study identified 11 inner parts to their personalities, of which 44 per cent were labelled by independent judges as negative traits and 56 per cent were positive traits. The researchers organised the participants' different personality parts into related trait types according to the IFS model, the most common being: Protectors (12 per cent), Managers and Pleasure Parts (both 11 per cent), Inner Critics (9 per cent), and Vulnerable Parts (8 per cent).

After completing the training course the participants re-took the same Theory of Mind test that they'd taken at the start of the study. Improvement in Theory of Mind was correlated with the number of different inner personality parts identified – the more facets the participants were able to recognise within themselves, the better they seemed to become at understanding others. This is reflected in neuroimaging research, where the processes of perspective-taking of the self and others utilise shared neural mechanisms.

Interestingly, the correlation between number of parts of self identified and improvement in Theory of Mind was even stronger in those who identified more negative parts. The researchers propose that this supports the theory that people are naturally resistant to looking for negative aspects of their personality, therefore those who do are thought to be working more profoundly to better understand themselves. In addition to the result of a better understanding of the mental states of others, this deeper work also improves psychological wellbeing, as it is widely acknowledged in clinical psychology that accepting negative emotions is beneficial to mental health.

The purpose of identifying the different aspects of our personalities is to understand that through them one can view a single situation through a handful of different outlooks; we learn to see the self as multifaceted and can detach and de-identify from one sole personal perspective. Consequently, we'll also be more open to the different points of view of others, and less likely to assume that a person's perspective remains consistent across different life situations. It's likely this increased interpersonal understanding will in turn encourage greater respect and compassion for others, facilitate communication and reduce the ostracism and stigmatisation of groups with alternative outlooks.

So it seems a little soul searching is required to better understand the people around us. Why not have a go at reflecting on your own psyche, and see what you can recognise in others?

About the author

Written by Marianne Cezza (@maricezza) for the BPS Research Digest. Marianne studied psychology at the University of York, where she was editor of the psychology department's magazine. She now works as a freelance writer and blogger specialising in psychology, neuroscience and mental well-being.