“We do not see things as they are, but as we are,” said Jiddu Krishnamurti. We are all, to some extent, self-referential. It can not be any other way. Although reality is one, we see it through our personal prism, a unique and multifaceted lens made up of our life experiences, needs, desires, expectations, values, ideas…
However, if we do not pay attention we run the risk of getting trapped in the echo chamber that our mind builds. When we misinterpret what is happening, we can self-generate a state of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
What is self-referential thinking?
Referential thinking, as it is also known, is a type of activity that involves both the cognitive and emotional spheres through which we become the epicenter of the world. That is, we direct attention towards ourselves, ignoring external signals.
One of its most common manifestations, due to our social nature, are ideas of reference. It is a rapid cognitive process that includes the first perceptions and a cursory interpretation of events (looks, gestures, comments, conversations or the actions of others), which we assume are directed at us.
In fact, self-referential thinking is a positive mental activity that allows us to simplify reality in order to react more quickly, especially in changing contexts, since we focus on ourselves. However, it can also get out of hand.
Ideas of reference can become delusional and, when they acquire more structure, organization and stability, they transform into pathological delusions of reference, which are the basis of mental health problems such as delusional disorder, schizophrenia, and paranoid and schizotypal personalities.
In these cases, self-referential thinking leads people to think that everything has to do with them. These people believe that they are the center of the world, so their thinking revolves around themselves. The impossibility of getting out of their own thinking and the enormous emotional burden that they carry leads them to live in a parallel world that does not confront reality.
However, we can all be victims of self-referential thinking, especially when we lock ourselves in our points of view and turn a deaf ear to inconsistencies or external evidence that proves otherwise.
Caught in the loop of our mind
For people with eminently referential thinking, almost all the actions of others have something to do with themselves. For this reason, they interpret comments, gestures and looks as potentially threatening, attributing them a malicious connotation. It is not unusual for them to even end up giving personal meaning to chance incidents.
Confirmation bias is one of the psychological phenomena that is at the basis of self-referential thinking. To avoid the cognitive dissonance and psychological discomfort that ideas different from ours usually generate, we all have the tendency to search for, interpret and remember information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.
In other words, we focus on details that confirm our expectations or stereotypes to feel more comfortable, which causes us to stay stuck in our vision of the world, interpreting everything that happens through that lens.
However, researchers from the University of Seville also found that self-referential thinking tends to be more intense in those who experience strong personal insecurity. When we lose the references that give order and meaning to our lives, especially due to sudden or major changes in our environment, it is understandable that we withdraw into ourselves in an attempt to rediscover the lost security.
In that case, referential thinking practically becomes a kind of defense mechanism that we activate to protect ourselves from a context that seems too hostile or confusing to us. In practice, we look for explanations within because we do not understand what is happening outside.
The risks of self-referential thinking
Although referential thinking forces us to look inward, we must be careful not to convince ourselves that the world revolves around us. If we become paranoid and see dangers where there are none, our emotional balance and well-being will end up paying the consequences.
When we give wings to referential thinking:
• We are not objective in the interpretations and evaluations of the facts
• We become highly egocentric or even paranoid
• We live more and more in the parallel reality that we have created in our minds
• We cannot respond adaptively to changes in the environment
• We fail to grow since we close ourselves to any different idea
Referential thinking is like a snake that bites its tail: it feeds itself. It refers to what it knows and does not look for evidence beyond its speculations. Therefore, it makes us prisoners of our minds and expectations.
How to recover rationality?
A study carried out at the universities of Granada and Valencia revealed that when content has a strong emotional impact, we tend to suffer an attentional bias that encourages the selective processing of information linked to the problem that affects us. However, response speed is essential.
As a rule, when we are in a situation of alarm due to stimuli that we find unpleasant, our first impulse is to respond to get out of that situation, so we do not question our automatic self-referential ideas.
On the other hand, it has been found that we can think more clearly if we take a few minutes before responding. This pause allows us to assume the psychological distance necessary to realize that perhaps we are exaggerating in our interpretations or that we are being too biased by assuming an excessively egocentric posture.
Another clue comes from research carried out at the University of British Columbia according to which self-referential thinking increases levels of generalized anxiety, but only when those ideas have a negative valence. On the contrary, when we think about ourselves from a positive perspective, we feel more confident and relaxed.
Tracy, A. et. Al. (2021) The effect of self-referential processing on anxiety in response to naturalistic and laboratory stressors. Cognition and Emotion; 1320-1333.
Senín, M. A. et. Al. (2014) El pensamiento referencial: aspectos psicopatológicos y del desarrollo. Charleston, SC: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform.
Senín-Calderón, M. C. y Rodríguez-Testal, J. F. (2012) Estudio clínico del pensamiento referencial: Análisis psicopatológico y psicométrico. Saarbrücken: Editorial Académica Española.
Martínez, M. P. y Belloch, A. (1998) Procesamiento de la información de amenaza física en la hipocondría: un estudio exploratorio utilizando el paradigma de Stroop. Revista de Psicopatología y Psicología Clínica; 3(1): 1-14.