Cognitive Bias In Fitness


You are likely already familiar with the idea of cognitive bias—a rogue’s gallery of flawed thinking. There are many flavours—all of which increase our chances of making errors. For example, confirmation bias puts its thumb on the scale when it comes to comparing what we already know with new, challenging information. We have a tendency to more actively seek facts—and then assign greater weight to them—when they are congruent with our existing beliefs. That’s why I’ve been wanting to put together a list of cognitive biases that specifically related to exercise and nutrition.

Here is an opening volley on the subject of cognitive bias in fitness:

Motivation Bias
If I had a cliché for everyone who told me that they knew what to do—and that they just needed to get motivated… Well, that would be a lot of clichés. For whatever reason, we tend to emphasize motivation as a culture—often to the detriment of everything else.

The truth is that you’re motivated. Read that again. You. Are. Motivated. You want to be healthy, fit, and resilient. You want to be able to keep up with your kids (or somebody else’s kids) and be at home in your own body. I don’t have to convince you; these drugs sell themselves. So, if motivation isn’t the issue, what is?

In a nutshell, motivation is one of the least dependable mental qualities you can pin your hopes and dreams. It’s essentially the same as saying, “I am only ever going to do this thing when I’m in a good mood.” If health is deeply important to you, you’re going to need a more dependable framework than mood or motivation. That will come down to routines, habits, and—of course—skills. All of these are far more stable properties than motivation.

Choice-Overload Bias
Think of this as a continuum—with automatic habits taking place on one side and painstaking decision-making on the other. For example, imagine two people who aspire to swing kettlebells on their patio every day after work.

“Where did I put that thing”

Person A has her habits locked-in. The second she walks in the door after work, she proceeds right to the patio door, picks up the kettlebell conveniently placed right there and gets down to business. No decision-making typically takes place. This is commonly thought of as discipline but—in some ways—is the opposite. By making the process non-intimidating and automatic, little willpower is needed. This can be further enhanced by only committing to a small action—like picking the kettlebell up or perhaps swinging it twice. In this case, the exercise quantity will vary BUT something will always happen.

Person B relies on discipline—whether she realizes it or not. The second she walks in the door after work, she remembers that she wants to swing a kettlebell but also needs to figure out where she put the bloody thing. She thinks about her level of fatigue and if she’s in the mood or maybe a bit too hungry right now. She’s got a new workout program she wants to try but is also wondering if she’s doing the old one right and is curious about what a certain fitness guru is advocating right now. She’s got some calls to make and should maybe handle that first and then …. You get the idea.

The issue isn’t just that Person B hasn’t made her exercise aspiration into a true habit—it’s that she’s opened herself up to multiple points of friction—every single time. The amount of cognitive work required to take action is tremendous when compared to her counterpart. As a result, motivation needs to be extremely high to run this gauntlet. The kind of day that negatively impacts her motivation (I see you, 2020!) can easily derail things.

The Double-Down Fallacy (making up for lost time)
In the case of making up for lost workouts, the mind may be willing but the flesh will be… Well, weak isn’t quite the word. Technically, it will be lacking capacity. Especially when you’re coming back after a long layoff. Capacity refers to the amount of stress or loading that tissue can handle before things go backwards (strains, sprains, or worse). So, your bottleneck isn’t your willingness to work—it’s what you can throw at yourself and still recover from. Put mental toughness in a separate bucket. This is an honest appraisal of what your body can handle in the moment. Capacity can grow quickly but it feeds on experience—not desire alone.

We shared our tips for managing a restart in a recent newsletter, so I’ll simply recap by recommending that you:

  • Make your returning workout light (about half of what you think you can do)

  • Look for minor symptoms of soreness and fatigue as indicators that you’re able to add

  • Plan to need at least a bare minimum of one month to really get up to cruising speed

Feeling impatient? Sleep more, eat more nutrient-dense foods, manage stress, and choose workouts with a maximum ROI. That will speed up recovery and help you handle more.

Goodhart’s Law
“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
—Charles Goodhart

Goodhart was discussing monetary policy but his ideas can just as easily be applied to deadlifts and pull-ups. Numbers are a tempting target. They give us insight into progress and often feel more real to us than our emotional states. The irony, of course, is that’s how they feel. The truth is—of course—far messier.

When you put all of your success eggs into one basket, things quickly become brittle. This is particularly important to remember when you are not a highly-specialized athlete. Most of us just want to be energetic, pain-free, functionally strong, and—of course—feel good about our bodies. There’s no single metric that can take us there.

Steps taken; lbs on the bar; body fat percentage; protein intake; sleep… The list goes on. These metrics all point to positive things. That is until we pin our hopes and dreams exclusively to one of them. Then things get brittle and messy.

Compare and despair

Whether you’re comparing yourself to someone else, a past version of yourself, or an utter fiction, the emotional reaction can be the same. It is a bummer. The act of comparison tends to pull you out of your present reality and to frame things in terms of what you’re not able to do—instead of the amazing range of capabilities you currently have.

I find that it’s helpful to think of your current physical situation as a physical puzzle. What movements do you have access to? What capacities do you possess? What skills are on the cusp of clear progress? What can you do well with ease? What can you do well with a bit of effort and focus? Ask the questions and let your body answer. It is a deeply meaningful dialogue.

By shifting focus to your current situation, movement becomes grounding and mindful. This process contributes to your sense of control—and overall mental wellbeing.

Are there more examples of cognitive bias in fitness?
Oh yes—and I may even write about them. If this has been helpful, please let me know.

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