A video obtained by MSNBC aired Thursday revealed the immensely awkward relationship between wannabe billionaire President Donald Trump and actual billionaire Bill Gates. The footage shows Gates fielding random questions from company staff during a recent Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation meeting. In addition to revealing that Trump doesn’t know the difference between HPV and HIV, the candid chat also leaked Gates’s thoughts about the president’s strange habit of speaking in the third person — a tic that gives him a psychological boost, whether he realizes it or not.
In the footage, Gates dishes to his audience about a bizarre encounter with the president:
“When I walked in, his first sentence kind of threw me off. He said: ‘Trump hears that you don’t like what Trump is doing.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, but you’re Trump.’ I didn’t know the third party-form was always expected. ‘Gates says that Gates knows that you’re not doing things right.’”
While Gates apparently went in blissfully unaware, Trump — like Elmo and Bob Dole before him — is known for referring to himself as Trump. The act of referring to oneself in the third person is technically called illeism, a term initially used to describe the way Julius Caesar wrote about his Gallic campaigns in the third person. While psychologist Dr. Keith Albow explained in a 2005 New York Times article that talking in the third person can indicate an identity disorder, especially in teenagers, overall the habit is thought be good for people — even if it’s annoying to everyone else.
In a widely cited study published in 2017, psychology researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan determined that talking in the third person can actually help you control your emotions, especially if you do it during moments of stress. In their study, published in Scientific Reports, they showed study participants images of neutral and disturbing images while scanning their brains and then interviewed them about the images afterward. People who referred to themselves in the third person during those interviews, they showed, had a rapid decrease in emotional brain activity, suggesting that they had gained better control of their emotions.
“Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain,” study co-author and MSU associate professor Jason Moser, Ph.D., explained in a statement linked to the paper. “That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experience, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”
We don’t know why Trump speaks in the third person, but it’s worth considering whether he does so to actively regulate his emotions. According to this study, doing so would be helpful: By engaging in third-person self-talk, the researchers behind the study explain, people are better able to exercise self-control. It’s easier to deal with life’s daily dramas if you talk about yourself like you’re talking about another person.
It seems that Trump was doing just that during his with Gates. “Trump hears that you don’t like what Trump is doing” isn’t exactly the chillest thing to say to someone — but it’s understandable to think that speaking in the third person helped him distance himself from the potential negative repercussions of that statement.