Talking out loud to ourselves seems like a goofy thing to do
– but research suggests that this can help us solve problems
I once had a violin teacher who had this amusing habit of
talking out loud to himself. Essentially offering a running
play-by-play of whatever he was doing at the moment, whether he
was sharpening a pencil, typing an email, or packing the trunk
of a car.
I thought it was a personal quirk, but as the years have gone
by, I’ve caught myself talking out loud on occasion.
And it seems I’m not alone in doing so.
What’s up with this? Are we just weirdos?
Or is there something about talking out loud that is actually
productive and helpful when it comes to solving problems we
might face when trying to improve our skills in the practice
room, on the court, or even the golf course?
Thinking out loud
A variety of studies, dating back as far as the early 60’s,
have found thinking aloud to enhance problem-solving, learning,
and our ability to transfer learning from one task to another.
It’s been suggested that verbalizing our thoughts forces us to
slow down, stop, and think through the important elements of
the task or problem in front of us more carefully,
deliberately, and consciously. It induces us to zoom out and
adopt a big-picture view of the problem where we can focus more
on our problem-solving process.
Umm…so what does that really mean, and what exactly are we
supposed to say when we talk out loud to ourselves? Simply
narrate what we’re doing as we do it? Give ourselves some
encouragement when the going gets tough? Verbalize whatever
thoughts pop into our heads, whether it’s relevant or not?
Five different approaches
A group of researchers put together a series of studies to test
several such strategies in hopes of better understanding how to
maximize the “talking-aloud effect.“
109 participants were tasked with solving different variations
of the Tower of Hanoi puzzle (try it yourself right here) in the fewest number of moves, before
being given a final test on the most challenging variation (to
see how effectively they could transfer what they’ve learned to
a new problem).
Participants were randomly assigned to one of five groups, each
of which was designed to test a different kind of thinking
Before each move, the “metacognitive” group
was asked to answer questions like “How are you deciding which
disk to move next?” or “How do you know that this is a good
move?” The idea was to get them to adopt a higher-level
process focus, by thinking about what they
were doing (consciously monitoring performance) and
how they were doing – i.e. whether the move was a good
one or not (evaluating success/failure/effectiveness).
The “if-then” group’s instructions were a
little more rigidly structured, but similarly intended to get
them focused on the problem-solving process: “Before each move,
I want you to tell me where you are going to move each disk,
and why. Specifically, I want you to state this in an ‘if-then’
statement, for example, ‘if I move this disk to this peg, then
this will happen’.”
The “problem-focused” group was asked to
answer questions like “What is the goal of the problem?” or
“What are the rules of the problem?” before each move. The idea
was to give them some structure, but not at the higher process
level of the other two groups.
The “think-aloud” control group was given no
real structure to guide their thinking, but simply told to
“think out loud while you are solving this problem. Try to keep
talking as much as you can so that I can hear what you are
thinking about as you solve the problem.”
The “silent” control group was given no
additional instructions beyond the standard instructions for
the puzzle, so did no verbalizing of their thoughts.
So how did the groups do?
The researchers evaluated groups’ effectiveness by counting how
many excess moves the participants made. In other words, each
variation of the puzzle can be solved in a certain number of
moves, so any moves above and beyond the minimum number of
moves needed to solve the puzzle were considered “error” or
On average, the control groups (silent and think-aloud) made
more mistakes than the two process-focused (metacognitive and
if-then) groups. This was true for every variation of the
puzzle during the practice trials – from the easiest 2-disk
version to the more complex 5-disk version.
Then, when the participants were tested on their ability to
solve the most challenging 6-disk puzzle (to see how
effectively they could transfer what they learned from the
practice puzzles), the control groups made an average of
2.5 error moves for every correct move vs.
just 1 error move for the process-focused
The problem-focused group fared somewhere in the middle. Better
than the control groups, but not as good as the process-focused
What does it all mean?
The data yielded a number of interesting findings, but the
researchers made two observations that may be of particular
interest to musicians and athletes.
1. Unless we are guided, we tend not to focus on or engage in
process-level thinking. It’s more natural for us to simply
execute a skill, stop, and repeat the skill on “autocorrect”
mode until the problem seems to go away. Like playing a passage
over and over until it sounds better. Hitting forehand volleys
over and over until we get into a groove and everything seems
Except that in “solving” problems on this implicit level, while
we may be able to work ourselves up to a pretty high level of
performance in the short term, it involves making more mistakes
during the process, and we don’t actually figure out what the
solution is, so therefore can’t apply it very effectively to
future problems that we might encounter.
2. When, on the other hand, we focus on what we are doing and
why we are doing it (whether we are verbalizing these
out loud or not), we can not only solve problems more
efficiently, but transfer those solution to similar new
problems we might encounter later.
All in all, this means less wasted time trying to solve
problems, and more time left to work on more interesting,
Try the Tower of Hanoi puzzle again, using the different
strategies. How does this change the problem-solving
Then, pick up your instrument (racket, club, etc.) and try
thinking out loud while trying to solve a technical problem.
How does this change things?
It feels ridiculous at first, but after a little while, talking
to yourself doesn’t seem so goofy, right?
A version of this article originally appeared at The