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Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias

When we look for evidence that confirms our emotional beliefs and we dismiss arguments that challenge us. We only want to hear things that verify our preconceived notions.

Here's how that works.

Do you trust me? Do you believe the things I write? The answer to that question relies more on your circumstances than my honesty. If you train with me, you probably see me as truthful. If you workout with someone else, you're more likely to question things I say. If you don't exercise at all, there's a good chance you dismiss the majority of what I write, often without reading past the headline.

No matter how much evidence I present to make a point, you will probably ignore me if your existing beliefs are different than what I'm saying. In other words, "Don't confuse me with the facts, I've made up my mind." Here's how it happens.

When confronted with information, we tend to make our minds up very quickly. Emotions sort themselves out in milliseconds, and we form positive or negative feelings about something. We then look for evidence that confirms our emotional beliefs, and we dismiss arguments that challenge us. It's called the "confirmation bias." Here's an example.

For more than 20 years, runners were taught the "10% Rule." To avoid injuries, they were told that they shouldn't increase the distance they run by more than 10% a week. It seemed like a reasonable number and was quoted in hundreds of articles, books and online. There's just one problem. Nobody ever researched the idea to see if it was true.

In 2007, researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands decided to test the idea. They took 532 novice runners and split them into two groups. The first group engaged in a standard running program. The second were put on a graded program limiting increases to 10% weekly.

The results were a complete surprise. At the end of the study, both groups sustained about a 20% injury rate. There was no injury benefit to limiting increases 10% weekly. When the study was published in January of 2008, I expected running organizations around the country to start experimenting with alternatives.

That didn't happen. Because the facts didn't fit into their belief system, organizations and individuals either ignored the research or dismissed it. Over four years after that ground-breaking study, national runners magazines and websites still refer to the 10% rule as if nothing has changed.

Confirmation Bias Video by Sprouts

That leads me to the next problem. It's relatively easy to recognize when someone else is biased, but extremely difficult to see that in ourselves. It's called the bias blind spot. I can see when someone else's beliefs are circling crazy town, but I'm reluctant to admit when something I think is just a little left of loopy.

Combine our emotional investment with a biased blind spot and you get a mind that's convinced it knows the truth, but that believes it figured things out in a perfectly logical way. When it comes to fitness, that's a problem. We believe we're doing the right things, even as our waistlines continue to expand. We ignore the facts.

There are three things you can do to help break out of that failed pattern.

  • First, start by figuring out where you are. Weigh yourself, test your body fat, visit a doctor and get a physical to see what kind of shape you're in. You need to start with honest measurements of yourself.

  • Second, if you have problems, make a plan to address them. Remember, if you're too heavy, the things you're doing now may not be appropriate. If you were doing the right stuff, you probably wouldn't be where you are. It's time to start dealing with and discarding those failed beliefs, failed diets and failed workouts.

  • Third, write everything down. Record all the food you put in your mouth to hold yourself accountable. Track all your weights, reps and sets when working out so you can keep pushing for improvements. It's critical that you track everything, so you can see what's working and what needs to change.

It's not easy, but you've got to learn how to discard beliefs that are holding you back. Constantly challenging them with reality is a great way to start.

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Updated 3/21/2022