Participants were divided into three groups. Some were told to back off from emotions that could arise as they reflected on the tests -- "self-distance" themselves from the encounter. Others had been told to "immerse themselves" in the encounter as they tried to deal directly with what had transpired. Participants in the third group were given no directions.
As expected, the students who backed off and saw themselves in the distance, like a third person, showed considerably less anger and aggression than the other two groups. Taking a broader perspective, like that fly on the wall, defused the anger arising from the interruptions.
That's a much better way of dealing with aggression than focusing on your own feelings and trying to understand them, Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication at Ohio State, said in releasing the study.
"If you focus too much on how you're feeling, it usually backfires," Bushman said. "It keeps the aggressive thoughts and feelings active in your mind, which makes it more likely that you'll act aggressively."
Ruminating about the confrontation while counting to 10 may be the worst medicine, according to other studies. The better course, according to this research, is to distance yourself from the scene.
Would this tactic help avoid some of the tragic headlines we see every day about minor disputes becoming major conflicts, leading too often to deadly force? Hard to say, and even Mischkowski concedes he doesn't have the data yet to say that.
But he has a hunch, based on what research is available, that it could.
"We find in general that the more serious the emotion is, the more this works," he said. "The more emotional people are, the more they need to cool down."
He was asked if he uses this technique himself when someone cuts him off on the freeway.
"I do it all the time and It's really helpful," he said. "I watch myself from a distance, and I see it from a different angle."
And he said he's sorry he had to make so many of his fellow students really angry.
"We really needed to piss them off, but on the other hand, it's not a good thing that we did to them," he said. "We asked them questions after the study and found that people got pretty mad."
Of course, they know now that all they have to do is be a fly on the wall.