A few days ago, my good friend Dick Talens of Fitocracy.com graciously tagged me in a Facebook thread he started that opened many a can of worms. When I read his questions the first time through, I knew it would yield a ton of opinions, thoughts, rants, and some eventual trolling.
Dick’s basic question was the following:
“Why are people quick to get upset (butt-hurt) when you tell them there’s a better way to do something OR that what they’ve been doing is likely not the best method for their goals?”
I don’t want to go exactly into the same things he asked, but I will touch upon them.
Before I go any further, I want to make something clear – I don’t have the answers as to why we act a certain way. I’m merely expressing my thoughts and would like to use this as a springboard for discussion.
Quite often fitness enthusiasts are quick to latch onto an idea and run with it – to the point of being dogmatic. This is not exclusive to just the fitness industry. It’s all around us.
What does dogmatic actually mean? It’s a set of established beliefs, or ideas, which are authoritative, and even unquestionable. It’s the way it is – end of story.
With this type of thinking, we’re doomed because if we never entertain the thought of new ideas and research, we’ll never progress.
Real World Examples
Have you ever met someone who had just learned about the Paleo Diet (or insert any diet here)? Did they bug you to no end about how all their meals were similar to how their ancestors ate? Did they begin to tell you how to eat because they read about it nonstop for the last week?
Ever met a Crossfit (also sometimes known as Cultfit) convert who swears their training method is so elite that everyone should do it regardless of their personal goals? Ever hear them trash other training methods, calling them subpar in comparison?
Now, I’m not picking on Paleo or Crossfitters exclusively, I’m just making an example because I think most fitness enthusiasts can understand and relate.
The problem is some of us become so narrowly focused on a concept that we tend to forget a whole bunch of other stuff actually works, too.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in my relatively short time in the industry, it’s that there’s no single way to achieve a particular goal. One can get lean and strong training 2 times per week, and walking for an hour on their off days.
Then another can get just as lean and strong training 5 times per week, including interval training for their cardio.
Which method is better? That’s really hard to say.
Are there advantages to one method over the other? Sure, but it depends on the context, the individual and their needs.
What I prefer might not be what you prefer, or even suitable for your fitness levels. I think Sohee Lee wrote a nice, concise piece about this topic called Your Way Isn’t The Only Way: A Rant.
I thought it was well written and loved her points about making things simple for the individual. For instance, she is into intermittent fasting, but if that style of dieting doesn’t fit with your schedule, simply choose a different method. Don’t make things harder than they need to be.
I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I was once an avid multiple-meals-per-day guy. Then I discovered fasting and was adamant about it, often trying to pick fights on the internetz because intermittent fasting was new, and special, and better than every other diet method.
Then I backed off and remembered that there are many ways to get to the same goal.
So in saying that, I have not much energy to devote to arguing one method’s effectiveness over another if it’s clear we’re only splitting hairs.
What I am interested in, however, is how we as fitness pros and enthusiasts can reach more people and be more effective with our message.
Within that long thread, there were a ton of good chunks of information I believe we can all learn from.
The first one is something I’d never heard of, but thanks to Lyle McDonald for pointing this out, I now know about The Backfire Effect.
In short, the backfire effect is like this (taken directly from the link above).
The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.
The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.
If this is new information, you might find this alarming, but I hope you keep an open mind. There are some interesting findings, especially when it comes to our beliefs, despite what is actually true and factual.
You see, for many of those new to fitness and who have experienced success, this is even more evident.
For instance when you speak to the thin person who struggled for years to lose weight and finally did it with a specific diet, you better believe they will be confident, positive, and most certainly sold when discussing their transformation. It’s not uncommon to hear them rave about the magical diet that worked so well for them.
So let’s say they went on a low to no-carb diet and lost the weight very quickly. Most people can relate to this example. We all know removing carbohydrate from your diet does two things.
In the short term, it allows one to drop water fairly quickly as glycogen stores deplete over the coming days through energy deficit and exercise. In the long(er) term, it helps someone maintain a decent energy deficit assuming they don’t over eat on protein and fat.
To the well-versed fitness nerd, this makes perfect sense. To the layman who failed every diet except Atkins, zero carb dieting is the Holy Grail to fat loss and there’s NO OTHER METHOD, in their mind at least.
Succeeding with fat loss (or anything, for that matter) can prove to be a very emotional process. During that time, people can develop various beliefs (regardless of rationale, or scientific fact) that reinforce their decisions and actions. As you will see in the quote below (from the article above), we do all that we can to protect what we believe to be true.
Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them.
When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.
So in this case, if we try to tell the low-carb dieter they could’ve reached their goals by creating a moderate caloric deficit with carbs present, chances are they won’t believe you and will often get upset at what you’re proposing.
Because to them it’s false. They tried for so long to lose weight, remember?
In their world, this is an impossible feat. They proved to themselves that low-carb dieting is what gets results.
This is a major problem.
As humans evolved, and our brains grew bigger, many new things became possible. With the growth of our intelligence, came the advancement of technology, our ability to communicate, make decisions, etc. All positive things methinks.
Along with our big brains came this amazing ability to replace rationale with faulty belief systems that were inline with our emotional centers. If it feels good, or seems right, then it must be.
Add to this the notion that we often take personal offense when someone tries to help us see a different side, and we become almost impenetrable. No ounce of knowledge can permeate the walls of our psyche finely constructed of misinformation.
My Personal Feelings
After reading the entire thread I linked to on Facebook, my thoughts are fairly elementary, but I think it all comes down to not wanting to be wrong and/or fearing the idea of being invested in a belief for so long, only to find out it’s false.
I’m going to end this with a comment left by Matt Perryman, along with a few resources. The bold is my emphasis.
if you really want to get into the hows and whys of this, I’d suggest starting with two papers:
This is (nominally) behavioral economics but Tversky and Kahneman outline the way human psychology centers on “heuristics” (mental shortcuts that approximate rationality in difficult or uncertain situations) and “biases” (affinities or aversions driven by unconscious associative processes).
Human beings are “rational” but only in a “sort of” sense. All the pretty cortical regions that let our brains do human things — language, math, science, philosophy, art — are all recent, evolutionarily speaking, and are tacked on to the older, more primitive structures of the reptile brain (evolutionary processes love to repurpose and rarely throws anything out).
Beliefs are driven as much by anecdote, personal experience, and what psychologists call “cognitive ease” (how immediate and easily available the information is) as they are by rational thinking. Unless we expend real effort to overcome those “lazy” habits of thought (and as Baumeister’s self-regulation work has shown us, it is a very real kind of effort with physical implications), we default to a very inductive, very anecdotal mode of reasoning.
Your brain is literally wired to be a “causal” thinker, finding stories and patterns that make sense (even if there is no cause beyond random noise). It doesn’t come with an error-checker because, let’s face it, there’s no reason to check for false positives or statistical baselines if the goal is “avoid lion”. We aren’t intuitively statistically-minded, so we have to work at it
And most people don’t. The end result is p. much any and every “stupid” thing people believe. The worst part of all is that you do it, too. So do I. So do trained statisticians. It’s how we’re built and if we don’t work at it, we will default back into pattern-matching story-teller mode.
So now, I want to get your thoughts on the matter.
For any of us to progress in our understanding of fitness, health, or nutrition, we can all agree that change has to occur. I cannot give even begin to tell you how many people I’ve received emails from stating that having a fresh perspective on meal frequency, proper training methods, dieting, and many other areas of fitness I write about have impacted them for the better.
Many times my writing on eating clean or fat loss might be a bit unnerving or threatening, but overall the response is generally positive for those who keep an open mind, which we all know is key for the learning process.
Be open to anything, and challenge everything.
What do you think? How can we as fitness professionals improve our reach? How would you go about coaching or educating those so new to fitness, who may be enslaved by their emotions and false beliefs?