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the fitness skeptic is a blog that takes a critical look at the health and fitness industry.

in it I'll examine the claims, products, practises and commonly held beliefs and SCRUTINISE the evidence.

My aim is to separate what is true from what is not and encourage fitness consumers and fitness professionals to become skeptics. 

I’ll take no prisoners when it comes to criticising the scam artist or highlightling the bogus but I’ll also give credit where credit is due.

Welcome to the fitness skeptic

Cognitive Bias: Making the Irrational Rational.

Not an Expert

I would say I have a reasonable knowledge of sports psychology having taken a module or two while at University studying sports science and physical education but I am certainly no expert in the subject of psychology in general. However, with what I remember from those dim and distance lectures together with what I've read on the subject over the years,  I think I can hopefully write something legible and pass on some useful information. I'll keep everything within the realm of health and fitness of course and, with the goal of not sending anyone to sleep, I'll try to keep it short and sweet. So hear goes........ 

What are cognitive biases?

I've talked about logical fallacies in previous posts. These are errors in reasoning where someone presents an erroneous premise in an argument.  Cognitive biases on the other hand are flaws in the way we think about things, errors in judgement if you like and these biases have a huge impact on what we believe and why. They occur when we create a subjective impression of what we hear or see and this can distort our perception and make our judgement inaccurate or irrational.  They are thought to be a natural result of our limitations in processing information which means we often take mental shortcuts when decision making. This usually involves focusing on one aspect of a complex problem and ignoring others. As a result they can effect the way people present evidence and from whom we are likely to accept evidence from. They are one of the reasons that misinformation is endemic in the fitness world (as in the world in general) and why many of us are so credulous.

Unfortunately non of us a immune to the effects of these biases but understanding a few should help you recognise them in yourselves and others. Here are a some that I think weigh heavily in the world of health and fitness:

1: Authority bias

This is the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of a perceived authority figure and to subsequently be more influenced by that opinion. 

Obviously if you're sat in a lecture theatre listening to a university professor wax lyrical about what ever he or she is an expert on, this bias isn't going to be an issue. Hopefully you can rely on the fact that the university wouldn't have employed them if they weren't suitably qualified so what they are talking about should have some degree of accuracy.

If however the 'authority' is someone on YouTube with a million subscribers talking about how to get a six pack or Nike telling you that this new running shoe will improve your 10k time, you might want to take time to think whether you believe what you are being told or not. 

2: Bandwagon effect

This is the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same thing. 

This bias is common in health and fitness where the success and longevity of the latest fad is assisted by the number of people who buy into it.  If you're of a certain age you might remember the Bullworker which was an exercise device that millions of men brought in the 70s (I think my dad might of had one?) or a little more recently the Ab Roller, a ridiculous piece of kit that you still find in gyms today. Or going back in time again, the ThighMaster (I'm pretty sure my Mum didn't have one of these. Well done Mum). What about Tae Bo, Callanetics, Body Pump, Spinning, HiiT or a myriad of other classes of varying quality and effectiveness that have all made an impact on the fitness world.  All of these things were initially driven by good marketing but were prolonged by the popularity they achieved because everyone 'jumped on the bandwagon'. 

Most of these fads and trends are pretty harmless (unless you think squeezing a pink spring loaded bar between your legs is an affront to human dignity ;-) but the bandwagon effect becomes a bit more of a problem when it drives misinformation.

For example I suspect a lot of people think diets work, that muscular soreness after training is caused by lactic acid, that carbohydrates are bad and Chelsea are a great football team ;-) All things that are untrue but are believed because a lot of people have the same opinion.   

3: Belief bias

This happens when someone's evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by the believability of the conclusion. 

Belief bias is one of the things that will dictate the success or otherwise of someone starting a YouTube fitness channel. If the person presenting 'looks the part' they are far more likely to be successful than someone who doesn't, even though in reality this has nothing to do with the quality or otherwise of the information they might present. On a superficial level, the fact that they look good makes them much more believable as reinforced by our belief bias.

Another example but from a different perspective would be if I told you that heavy weight training doesn't necessarily make you more muscular. This is a true statement but logically doesn't seem believable as most people equate heavy weight training with muscular physiques. As a consequence you probably wouldn't believe it. 

What about if I told you that running isn't bad for your knees? To most this doesn't make any sense after all, what about all that repetitive impact? That can't possibly be any good for your joints? Well the research would say otherwise, see my post Is Running Bad for your Knees? for confirmation. 

Are you still awake? 

So there you have it, a little bit of psychology to further your skepticism and help you negotiate the world of bullshit in health and fitness.

If your eyes haven't completely glazed over and you'd like to read a bit more click here: 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

Remember, the truth is out there; it's just not always easy to find because of the ways our brains are wired. 

References  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias

http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heuristics_in_judgment_and_decision-making

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