The Virtue of Self-Distancing

The Virtue of Self-Distancing

Co-PI: Warren Herold, Ph.D.

Philosophy, University of Arkansas


Co-PI: Ethan Kross, Ph.D.

Psychology, University of Michigan


Walter Sowden, Ph.D.

Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research


View a proposal of this project, presented at the SMV Project’s 2015 Interdisciplinary Moral Forum. Visit our YouTube channel for more.

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 allows people to control their emotions and makes them more altruistic.

     These effects give rise to a specific conception of virtue. Smith describes the perfectly virtuous moral agent as one who feels keenly for others, feels little for herself, and who at all times exhibits a generous character and impeccable emotional restraint. Smith’s virtuous moral agent, in other words, is one who exhibits precisely those qualities that he claims self-distancing promotes. If Smith is right, then self-distancing is a process of profound significance: one that simultaneously facilitates the creation of the self and promotes virtuous motivation and conduct.

     But is Smith right? Does self-distancing allow people to control their emotions and make them more altruistic? We know part of the answer. Numerous empirical studies have shown that adopting a self-distanced perspective enhances people’s ability to control their emotions. But virtually nothing is known about Smith’s second claim: about whether self-distancing makes people more altruistic.

     Our project will fill this gap by rigorously testing Smith’s claim that adopting a self-distanced perspective causes individuals to be more altruistic – i.e., to place more weight on the rights and interests of others, relative to their own. We will use an approach that spans multiple levels of analysis and utilizes both laboratory and field methods to address this issue. Laboratory studies will systematically manipulate whether participants self-distance when weighing their own interests against the interests of others, and examine the implications of these manipulations for altruistic reasoning and behavior. An experience-sampling field study will complement these lab studies by examining the causal role that self-distancing plays in altruistic reasoning and behavior in daily life. Consistent with Smith’s claims, we predict that subjects who self-distance will display more altruistic behavior, less negative self-report and physiological arousal, and less self-focus.

     The outcomes of this work, we hope, will extend basic research on self-distancing, enhance our understanding of Smith’s accounts of the self and virtuous motivation, and identify new tools to promote virtuous conduct in everyday life.