The Virtue of Self-Distancing

The Virtue of Self-Distancing

Warren Herold, Ph.D. (co-PI)
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR

Ethan Kross, Ph.D. (co-PI)
Professor of Psychology
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI

Walter Sowden, Ph.D.
Research Psychologist, Center for Psychiatry and Neuroscience
Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Silver Spring, MD

Project Summary

Are we born with a self or do we create one? In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith claims the latter, and he argues that the process by which we do so plays an important role not only in the development of the self, but in the development of virtue. One develops a self, Smith argues, by examining one’s feelings and behavior from an external point of view: by thinking of oneself not as oneself, but as an “other”—a process we refer to as “self-distancing”. He believes that this way of thinking has powerful effects: it enables people to control their own emotions, to more accurately understanding their own interests, to reduce their natural tendency to exaggerate the value and importance of their own lives and experiences, and to increase their recognition of and respect for the rights and interests of others. In short, Smith believes that the process of self-distancing enables individuals to more effectively pursue their own interests, subject to the constraint that they do so in a way that respects the rights and interests of others.

In addition to discussing the effects of self-distancing, Smith offers and defends a specific (and related) conception of virtue. He describes the perfectly virtuous moral agent as one who employs their capacity for self-command to regulate their conduct in a way that perfectly balances considerations of prudence, justice, and benevolence. We act virtuously, according to Smith, when our self-command enables us to more closely approximate the ideal balance of prudence, justice, and benevolence than can be reasonably expected of us.

Are Smith’s claims correct? Does self-distancing enable people to regulate their emotions more effectively? Does it lead them to more accurately recognize, and more effectively pursue, their own interests, while simultaneously recognizing and respecting the rights and interests of others? Even before we began our research, we knew part of the answer. Numerous empirical studies conducted in the last decade have shown that adopting a self-distanced perspective enhances people’s ability to control their emotions. But when we began our project, virtually nothing was known about Smith’s other claims. We did not know whether self-distancing enables people to more accurately recognize, and more effectively pursues, their own interests, for example, or whether it leads people to recognize and respect other people’s rights and interests when engaging in practical deliberation.

Our work has gone some way toward filling this gap. We completed four laboratory studies designed to provide information about the effects of self-distancing on both prudential and moral deliberation. Our first three studies demonstrated that self-distancing can in fact lead at least certain individuals to more accurately recognize and effectively pursue their own interests, at least in the context of one type of economic game: the so-called dictator game. Interestingly, our data indicate that that the effect of self-distancing depends in part on gender: very roughly, self-distancing causes women to act more in their own interests, but has no effect on men. Our fourth laboratory study asked whether self-distancing increases the extent to which individuals recognize and respect the rights and interests of other people. We recently completed collecting data for this study and are eager to analyze it.

Our work on this project has extended basic research on self-distancing, enhanced our understanding of Smith’s theory of virtue and the self, and suggested new pathways for future research.

Significant Research Accomplishments

In our original proposal, we planned to complete four experiments. We have done that. However, the four experiments that we have completed are not the same four experiments that we had originally planned to run. The reason is straightforward: our first experiment yielded unexpected, but nonetheless fascinating, results – almost exactly the opposite of what we had expected to find! This required us to redesign our project in order to follow the data. Specifically, we had to revisit and fundamentally revise our interpretation of Adam Smith’s theories of virtue, the self, and the effects of self-distancing; and to redesign our subsequent laboratory studies in light of our initial empirical findings. We expect this approach will pay dividends shortly when we attempt to publish our work.

Our first laboratory experiment was a Dictator Game. The experiment was designed to examine the effect of self-distancing on prosocial conduct. We predicted that, in the context of the dictator game, individuals who self-distance would give away more money than individuals who deliberate from a self-immersed perspective. We found roughly the opposite effect: on average, individuals who self-distanced gave away less money than those who did not. In other words, our results indicated that self-distancing led individuals to focus on, and effectively to pursue, their own interests, rather than promoting the interests of others. Our two subsequent studies both confirmed and refined these initial findings, enabling us to draw additional conclusions regarding the specific effects of self-distancing on male and female subjects.

Our fourth laboratory experiment examined a very different paradigm: a so-called Trust Game. This final experiment was designed to examine the effects of self-distancing on individuals’ tendencies to regulate their behavior so as to respect the rights and interests of others. We expect that, contrary to what we found in the dictator game, individuals who self-distance in the context of a trust game will be more likely to respect the rights of their partners and give a portion of their money away.

The first significant accomplishment of this project is theoretical/historical: we developed, substantially revised, and finalized our interpretation of Adam Smit’s theory of the development of the self, and the relationship between that developmental process and virtuous motivation and conduct. Second, we have completed four laboratory experiments designed to test various hypotheses regarding the effects of self-distancing on (i) prudential motivation and behavior and (ii) prosocial conduct.


  • Herold, W. (2015, July). Adam Smith & the psychology of contractualism. Presented at: Themes from Smith and Rousseau Conference, University of Glasgow.
  • Herold, W. & Sowden, W. (2016, May 7). The virtue of self-distancing. Paper presented at the 2016 Self, Motivation & Virtue Project Conference, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN.
  • Herold, W. & Sowden, W. (2017, June 23). Self-distancing, prudence, and justice. Paper presented at the 2016 Self, Motivation & Virtue Project Conference, Norman, OK.
  • Kross, E. (2016, February). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Colloquium presentation presented at Columbia University.
  • Kross, E. (2016, March). Controlling your emotions. Ann Arbor Public Library Public Lecture, Ann Arbor, MI.
  • Kross, E. (2016, March). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Lecture presented for the Friedman Brain Institute Translational Neuroscience Seminar Series, Mt. Sinai.
  • Kross, E. (2016, July). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. International Conference Psychological Science, Fukuyama, Japan.
  • Kross, E. (2017, January). Stress management: Insights from the science of self-control. Staff Development Lecture, Psychology Department, University of Michigan.
  • Kross, E. (2017, February). Stepping back to move forward: Self-distancing promotes meaning-making. Booth School of Business, University of Chicago.
  • Kross, E. (2017, May). Stepping back to move forward: Self-distancing promotes meaning-making. Cleveland MetroHealth Conference. (Plenary Speaker)
  • Kross, E. (2017, June). The role of self-talk in regulating emotional responses to social threat. Small Group Meeting on Ostracism, Social Exclusion, and Rejection, Lucerne, Switzerland.
  • Kross, E. (2017, August). Self-control: From the lab to the classroom. Education Summit (Plenary Speaker), Philadelphia.
  • Kross, E. (2017, October). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. University of Oregon, Colloquium.

Publications & Manuscripts

  • Herold, W. (Under review). Sympathy, evaluation, and imagination: Adam Smith on perspective taking. Journal submission.
  • Herold, W. (Under review). Overcoming parochialism: Distance, social interaction, and Adam Smith’s impartial spectator. Journal Submission
  • Herold, “Adam Smith and Social Contract Theory” (in progress).
  • Herold, W., Sowden, W. & Kross, E. (in progress). Virtue and self-distancing. Invited chapter for the SMV Project edited volume.


2016 Conference