I’ve been wanting to write an article about cognitive biases for a while. They’re important both because of how they can work against us, and because of how they can occasionally work in our favor. The logic of our subconscious mind is irrational in systematic and predictable ways, according to the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
By recognizing these biases, we can work to slow down, think through problems logically, and (partially) inoculate ourselves from their effects. Although most of the work on the effects of these cognitive biases exists in the realm of behavioral economics, they have large and obvious impacts on how we think about and implement many things in the realm of fitness.
I’ve actually tried to pound out a draft of a very similar article a few times in the past, but I had a hard time figuring out how to make it engaging and relatable. Luckily, my friend Tanner Baze got me off the hook by knocking this one out of the park. I added a few of my own thoughts on the biases he discussed to round it out, and I think it turned out to be a really useful article that will help you to understand some of the common mistakes you’re prone to making, and to help you look at the world of training and nutrition a bit more objectively. -Greg
With fall officially here, it’s tough not to think about things like pumpkin flavored beers, chats around the fire, and snuggling up in warm blankets. Warm blankets are actually what we’ll be exploring today, only instead of the warm blanket you’re thinking of, we’re exploring the warm blanket of ignorance that is cognitive dissonance.
Single humans fall victim to their own ignorance, or cognitive dissonance. Our brain fools us into believing things that aren’t true, mostly under the guise that we’re rational human beings.
In truth, this is completely wrong. There are a great number of psychological fallacies we subject ourselves to, far too many for the scope of this article. Instead, we’re going to take a look at five of the most common cognitive biases we fall victim to, examine what they are, and offer strategies in how to beat them.
I once had a particular client that I was close to. She had come to me because she wanted to get in shape for a big family reunion that was about six months out. We went through her assessment, got a copy of a recent food log, and developed a plan going forward. Her motivation was at an all-time high, and she wasn’t new to the gym. To most coaches, she would be ideal. She was the characteristic high motivation/high skill client.
Three months in, we hadn’t made any appreciable change. I was really beginning to rack my brain to see what could possibly be going on. We had determined that she did better when she didn’t track food, due to some underlying issues with the scale. But we were tracking workouts, and I was having her take pictures and measurements. Nothing was happening.
It wasn’t until about a month out from her family reunion that we had a light bulb moment, all thanks to a comment she made in passing. After a pretty difficult session, she mentioned how she had earned the cupcake she was about to eat. It was an innocent comment, and even rooted in science, because when I pushed further she went on to explain needing some fast-digesting carbs post workout.
After more and more questioning, we started to uncover that her day was filled with little treats like this that she had “earned.” Because these were always in the context of some reward, they didn’t seem off-track, or not fitting within her diet. However, what she wasn’t aware of was the treats often happened much more often than she cared to realize.
This is narrative bias in action. You and I fall victim to the exact same thing.
Narrative bias refers to our tendency as human beings to make sense of the world through the use of narrative, or stories. This is an evolutionary function of the brain, and without it, we’d be left utterly confused most of the time.
We receive absurd amounts of information day in and day out, thanks to our 85 billion neurons. On average, this equals about 34 gigabytes of information exposure a day.
We have to try to make sense of all the information we receive, so we do it in the most efficient way possible. This means creating narratives to link pieces of information. We’ve evolved over millions of years to prefer information consumption in this format, and find information in this format more plausible.
The tricky part of narrative bias is this: We like to think we can view our narratives objectively, when in reality, we’re terrible at it. We’re excellent at cutting through other narratives, but not our own.
It could be argued that there is no greater example of this on a large scale than in health and fitness. My client is a perfect example. She couldn’t figure out why the weight wasn’t coming off, and until someone else started digging deep into her food habits, she wasn’t aware of how much junk food she actually ate.
How to fight narrative bias?
Food logging and training journals are invaluable. They provide real world tools that allow us to look back and cut through our own personal training and dieting narratives.
If you want to get stronger, you know you need to lift more. What if you’re not keeping track of intensity, frequency, and volume though? Even though the workouts feel hard, they might not be what you need to make strength gains. A training journal or coach can shed light on where your program falls short, and where your own narrative may blind you.
If you need to drop fat, you know you need to eat less. Unless you’re an extremely experienced dieter, you probably need to track food intake to get an idea of how much you’re eating, and to see if fat loss is possible. If not, special treats or one-time indulgences can easily fit within your overall narrative and leave you stumped when progress stalls.
Editor’s Note: The Narrative Bias doesn’t have to be all bad. Your beliefs about yourself largely come from stories you tell yourself about how you’ve wound up in whatever situation you’re currently in, and those stories are based on selective memory and interpretation of things that have happened to you. When you’re in a bad situation, you can find a way to support the narrative that you’re someone who overcomes hardships, and that you’re just dealing with a minor setback that you’ll get past and emerge from stronger and more resilient than ever. Or, you can find a way to support the narrative that you’re someone who has the deck stacked against you, and that you’re stuck in a bad situation.
Conversely, when you’re in a good situation, you can find a way to support the narrative that you’re there because you busted your ass, and that if you keep busting your ass, your situation will improve further. Or, you can find a way to support the narrative that you’re only in a good situation because you got lucky, and that you’re probably about to hit a wall and regress to the mean.
None of those narratives is inherently true or false, but they are more helpful or less helpful. I wrote about this phenomenon near the end of this article about the mind’s influence over the body, and this article about strength standards. Sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to put the narrative bias to work for you by telling yourself little white lies about your trajectory and your potential. -Greg
Researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman asked this question:
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
Which is more probable?
- Linda is a bank teller.
- Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
This question is the most widely used example when highlighting the conjunction fallacy. Most people who are asked this question choose option two. Intuitively, it makes more sense. The conjunction fallacy says our brains believe that a very specific set of circumstances is more probable than a general set. However, adding criteria such as “and is active in the feminist movement” actually makes the scenario less likely.
The conjunction fallacy is quite common; additionally, it often supports – and is supported by – narrative bias. Most often, our personal narratives are crafted and bolstered by deception via the conjunction fallacy. Quite simply, we have a penchant to believe a very specific set of circumstance is most likely, especially when it concerns ourselves.
Like narrative bias, this is especially true in the health and fitness world. If you spend enough time in the gym, you’re likely to hear all sorts of excuses as to why some people haven’t reached their goals.
I can’t begin to tell you how many different reasons I’ve been given for why people can’t reach their goals. Everything from they hate the taste of vegetables, to their grandparents worked on a sugar farm, and they’re genetically hardwired to be addicted to sugar.
All of this sounds good, and it makes us feel like we’ve got a reason to justify our failure. However, it’s not likely that results are being hindered by an incredibly slow metabolism. The explanation is probably much simpler: The client just hadn’t stuck with the plan.
How to beat the conjunction fallacy?
Much like narrative bias – or any bias, for that matter – one of the most powerful tools in fighting the conjunction fallacy is using a journal. Journals shed light on what is actually going on, compared to what we think is going on.
The conjunction fallacy can be relatively tricky though, and sometimes a little “tough love” is what is really necessary to overcome it. Sometimes, we have to realize we aren’t a special snowflake, and that there are no unique barriers preventing us from ever reaching our goals. Sometimes, we just need to work harder and realize we’ve been selling ourselves short.
Editor’s note: The conjunction fallacy is also a primary culprit in people’s never-ending and self-defeating quest for the perfect diet or perfect training program, which can lead to paralysis by over-analysis. The biggest determinants of success are consistency and effort. Just “showing up” and getting the big things mostly right over and over again (progressive overload and sufficient training volume in the gym, and eating the right amount of calories and protein at the dinner table) will account for the vast majority of your success. The conjunction fallacy leads people to believe that their success (or lack thereof) is equally dependent on a wide array of factors, which then leads them to scrutinize and obsess over all of them (looking for the perfect combination of exercises, sets, and reps, or finding the perfect combination of foods and supplements, etc.), often missing out on the big picture. -Greg
Sunk Cost Fallacy
I once paid a lot of money for running shoes. More than I’d ever spent on running shoes before. They were supposed to be awesome. Zero drop, minimalist shoes that would take my running to the next level.
I’m not a marathoner, but I do enjoy running and want to get better at it, so I was willing to invest in the necessary equipment to get better at running. The first few times I wore them, they were really uncomfortable. My feet and knees felt like I had aged 60 years in a matter of days.
I chalked it up to the fact that I’m incredibly flatfooted and that I just needed to break the shoes in.
Three months later, and I was still having the same issue. I never bought new ones or stopped wearing these shoes while I was running though. Why? I had made a financial and emotional investment in them. The idea of putting them up in my closet to collect dust was painful. That investment, which was a major one to me, would be a waste.
This is the sunk cost fallacy in action.
The sunk cost fallacy states that we believe we make rational decisions based on future value of objects, experiences, and investments. In reality, we’re swayed by emotional experiences and investments, and the more emotionally invested we are, the less likely we are to abandon something.
Spend enough time lifting, and you’re likely to run into equipment that promises to make you better. A new pair of lifting shoes, new knee sleeves, a new barbell. This stuff promises to take us to the next level, and it isn’t cheap.
After spending the money, we’re determined to use the product, even if it doesn’t feel right from the very beginning. However, we’ve already committed to using the product, and we wouldn’t want to waste that money.
In reality, we’ve already spent the money, though. We’re not getting it back. We’d be better off just cutting our losses and moving on.
The same can be said with hiring a coach who just isn’t getting a client results. The fit isn’t right, for some reason. But we hold out, hoping that this coach is going to get us the results we want at some point. Why don’t we just cut ties and find a new one who we think will get us results? Because we’re financially and emotionally invested. The thought of losing something hurts us more than gaining something gives us pleasure. This is so prevalent that when we make purchasing decisions, we tend to focus much more on what we might actually lose versus what we stand to gain. This is what was called the pain of paying by behavioral economist Dan Ariely.
Because of this pain of paying, the sunk cost fallacy becomes almost impossible to overcome. We go through the pain of parting with our hard-earned money, usually for something that we’ve invested in emotionally as well. So when that thing doesn’t live up to the hype, we’ll continue using it in hopes of justifying the pain of paying.
How do we overcome the sunk cost fallacy?
I alluded to this fact earlier, but it is worth repeating: Once you’ve spent the money, it’s gone and you’re not getting it back. If a product or service is not delivering what you hoped it would, then cut bait as quickly as possible.
That sounds great in theory, but it is difficult in practice. Start reframing everything by asking what else you have to gain from a product or service. For example, if I took a hard look at my running shoes, I would have deduced that I didn’t have much to gain by continuing to wear them. I could gain more by cutting my losses and buying a new pair.
Editor’s note: There are two instances where I see a lot of lifters fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy.
The first instance is when they go out to eat. Restaurants are notorious for offering huge portion sizes. Unless you’ve saved a bunch of calories for a night out, or you’re really good about always ordering lower calorie options, odds are that the meal that arrives will have a lot more calories than you should eat if you want to stick with your diet. However, we have the strong urge to eat all the food in front of us, especially at a restaurant where we paid quite a bit of money for the food.
It’s important to keep in mind that the meal costs the same amount, whether you finish it or not. You want to eat it all to make sure you “got your money’s worth,” but really, when you do that, you’ve already paid for the meal, and you’re going to “pay” again for eating more than you should have. You don’t lose anything by leaving some food on the plate, or getting a to-go box.
The second instance is when they’re on a training program that they hate, or that just isn’t working for them. You shouldn’t be jumping from program to program every week, but sometimes you just need to cut your losses and move on, especially if you hate the training you’re doing, and it’s causing you to develop an aversive relationship with training.
You feel like you should finish the training program since you’ve already sunk a month or two into it. However, there’s no way to get that time back, so you are left with the choice to either accept that fact and move on, or to sink even more time and energy into something that’s not working, and probably isn’t going to magically start working for you. -Greg
The Availability Heuristic
An old friend of mine recently reached out to ask about the paleo diet. My friend needed to lose some weight, and had seen that the paleo diet seemed to be all over the Internet, along with various success stories of people following it, including some friends and family members.
In my friend’s mind, it seemed like the best possible diet. Eat all the meat you want, get in touch with your primal self, and drop fat. What could be better?
This is the availability heuristic at play, which says that we rely on immediately available examples when evaluating a specific topic, method, concept, or decision.
When you’re able to recall something, you assume that that recalled information is more important and holds more value than things that weren’t as easily recalled.
My friend needed to lose weight, and the paleo diet was immediately available because of recent exposure. Sure, my friend was likely curious, but the paleo diet was also the first thing to come to mind. This doesn’t just stop at diets, though. The availability heuristic can even be attributed to misdiagnosis of serious diseases, such as AIDS.
The information at the top of your mind holds far more importance than other examples; this can completely change understanding of a topic.
In the diet world, this is incredibly common. The Internet is full of stories of people who claim the paleo diet changed their health and life and helped them attain the look of a cover model.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the paleo diet, semantics aside; it’s just an example here. Here’s what it comes down to: When someone wants to start dieting, they’ll go with the diet that’s immediately available to them mentally. In this case, the paleo diet.
How do we keep from falling for whatever is immediately available?
There are a number of ways to attempt to desensitize yourself to the availability heuristic, but as depressing as it may sound, most attempts are futile. Nobody knows why, but we tend to weigh things we’ve recently been exposed to far more importantly than others.
That being said, one tool I attempt to use is writing out a list of diets, training programs, shoes, or whatever it is that I’m looking to buy or try. Inevitably, at least one of my options has been in the media or online lately, and I’ve been exposed to it. I’ll write out the pros and cons to both, leave the list for a few days, and then come back to make a decision.
It’s not a fool-proof method by any means, but it seems to help me think about things a bit more rationally.
Editor’s note: I see lifters and athletes falling prey to the availability heuristic in two distinct ways.
Some people look around at average people, and severely underestimate human potential, underestimate their own potential, or overestimate their current abilities. If everyone around you is obese, and you’re 15-20% bodyfat, it’s easy to think you’re leaner than you actually are. If no one else at your gym squats 315 or benches 225, then you may think you’re hot shit for squatting 4 wheels, or doubt your ability to bench 315, or not be able to fathom how any human could possibly bench 500+ or squat 800+.
On the other hand, social media makes it easier to see a parade of world-class lifters and athletes performing insane feats. Online, the more impressive something is, the more likely it is that it’ll be shared. You constantly see the best of the best, and you’re rarely exposed to more average lifters. This can lead people to feel down on themselves, think they’re fat when they’re at a healthy body fat percentage, or think they’re weak when they’re putting up numbers that would be impressive in almost any context except international-level competition.
Daniel Kahneman uses the phrase “what you see is all there is” to describe this phenomenon. We assume the things we see frequently tell the whole story, and we’re prone to rush to judgements with very limited information. -Greg
My first experience with survivorship bias took place after the movie Fight Club was released. I remember looking at Brad Pitt and thinking, “that’s exactly what I wanted to look like.” I searched far and wide to find the exact program he used to get in that kind of shape.
I searched and searched for the proper program and cobbled together a makeshift program out of what I could find online. I gave it a go, and I failed miserably. I lasted roughly three weeks following my Fight Club program. Safe to say, I didn’t survive it, which makes me a perfect example of the survivorship bias.
The survivorship bias is the error of focusing on things that survived a process, and overlooking those that didn’t. More than any other fallacy, this runs rampant in the strength community.
How many times have we been harmlessly scrolling through Facebook looking for someone to argue with, and come across someone looking to try a pro athlete’s program?
People in the health and fitness world are obsessed with following a program that a celebrity of any level has followed. If we like the look someone has, we’ll do everything imaginable to mimic every single little detail.
We might want to try Arnold’s program to gain size. Arnold is obviously an outstanding bodybuilder who learned more about training via hard work and mistakes than most will in their lifetime. So why not do what he did?
Arnold also put out a ton of information about his training via books and magazine articles, and even more has been released lately. There are hundreds of programs or workouts that Arnold did, and we can all do them as well.
There are thousands upon thousands of dudes who have trained using the Arnold workouts they found in magazines. How many of them actually look like Arnold, though?
Want to dunk a basketball? Maybe you should start training like Lebron James. But what if Lebron is an outstanding player no matter what, and his success shouldn’t be attributed to his hard work?
There are millions of people who train a certain way because they heard their favorite pro athlete trained this way. How many of them are actually pro athletes?
What if, in some cases, our favorite pro athletes are outstanding at their sport in spite of their training, not because of it?
This is the main crux of the survivorship bias. More often than not, we place an inordinate amount of trust in someone who has survived a process, while completely overlooking all of those who have failed.
A “survivor” might be Arnold, or it might be Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. After all, thousands of kids have dropped out of college thinking they’re the next young wiz kid to change the world.
How do we keep from needing to survive the survivorship bias?
In the strength world, hiring a coach is a great way to beat this and the narrative bias at once. An experienced and knowledgeable coach has our best interests in mind and will apply their knowledge to our situation. They won’t put someone who isn’t a pro level athlete through a program a pro might use. They’ll take the feedback we give them and the results we have, and they’ll then tailor the program specifically to us.
Editor’s note: This is why it’s dangerous to assume someone’s an expert about something just because of their level of success. Though success and expertise correlate to some degree, it’s hard to tell which factors contributed to the success, which factors had a neutral effect, and which factors were actually detrimental. This is a strength of the scientific process: the ability to tease out the factors that do actually contribute to success in a certain pursuit.
Examining the factors that broad swaths of successful people have in common, and the training factors that broad swaths of successful athletes (with your level of training experience) have in common will also give you a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. This strategy is much better than assuming that the yellow brick road to success is paved by every action a particular successful person has taken, or by every individual facet of a successful athlete’s training program. -Greg