Thursday, September 29, 2011

Psychology and fitness - (3 famous psychology papers and what they say about the fitness world)

For about 4 years I shared a house with a bunch of psychologists. Over the course of that time by process of osmosis (or maybe more accurately by process of talking crap over bottles of red wine) I developed a keen interest in the field and in the fascinating research that has been done over the years. There are certain key studies that will be familiar to any psychology undergrad and indeed to much of the lay population. I recently started thinking about the implications of these studies for the health and fitness world, and what they might tell us about our behaviors.
My "academic" education is pretty limited, I don't have a degree or masters. But I read, I question, and I research. Here's my spin on things.

Stanley Milgram on authority-
Milgram carried out one of the most notorious experiments in the field of human behaviour. The experiment involved members of the public asking an unseen person in another room a list of questions. Unbeknownst to them, the answerer was in fact an actor. Every time the answerer seemingly got a question wrong the questioner was told to press a button which gave them an electric shock.
The machine which delivered this shock had many buttons , each corresponding to a different strength of electric shock. They went from mild shock, through to severe, all the way to an ominous button marked "xxx". As the experiment progressed and the answerer continued to make mistakes the questioner was told by a person in a white coat with a clip board to administer stronger shocks. Despite the actors obvious distress and audible screams, most participants continued to dutifully press the buttons. At a predetermined point the actors suddenly went silent, neither answering questions nor screaming. Even at this point , 65% of participants continued to administer electric shocks to the (now presumably dead) person in the next room. All because a person in authority told them to.

In fitness we see this behaviour in the phenomenon of guru following. Once a person is positioned as an expert and has amassed a group of followers, they can then simply make statements and have a large section of the industry take them at their word. Aerobics make you fat, spinal flexion/machine based training/aspartame is the devil, this or that gives you cancer, whatever. Statements can simply be thrown out there with little or no regard for actual evidence and quickly become dogma, repeated so many times they become received wisdom. Never questioned, merely accepted.
I'm not concerned here with wether these individual statements are true, more with the eagerness of many to simply "be told" rather than think and explore and research for themselves. Perhaps it's intellectual laziness, or perhaps obedience to authority is hard wired into human behaviour and trainers are no different.

BF Skinner and the superstitious pigeons-
Skinner and his team observed a group of pigeons through a glass window. At random intervals food was dropped into the pigeons enclosure. Occasionally the food would coincide with the pigeon performing a particular action, spinning round in a circle or bobbing its head in a certain way. What the researchers noticed was that the pigeon would then continue to perform that action, presumably believing that it had actually caused the food to drop in. In effect, they had observed the development of superstition in pigeons. Similar research was later carried out on groups of children and the same thing occurred.
We see this all the time in the health and fitness world, particularly in the area of supplementation. Many will swear by echinacea for example, because they took some and a few days later their cold was gone. But what happens to a cold if you take absolutely nothing? After a few days, it's gone.
I'm not anti supplement at all, some work. And to be honest I'm not that bothered about people buying totally unproven supplements or homeopathic remedies, it's their money and I'm happy to see it as a self selecting tax on people who ignore statistics. My concern is that it seems to feed into a larger trend of completely disregarding science in favour of personal experience. So we have trainers recommending a supplement because it "worked for them" when the research has never shown it to be any more effective than placebo, while simultaneously criticising the medical industry and claiming research can "prove anything".
(Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a Latin phrase meaning "after, therefore because of," a logical fallacy that fits nicely here. And no I don't speak Latin, it was the title of an episode of The West Wing)

This trend is troubling, and I have a nagging fear about waking up one day and finding myself part of the alternative medicine industry. Perhaps we're already there?

This is not to say that personal experience is unimportant. It's absolutely vital. Certainly with things like exercise selection, nutrition approaches or techniques to increase client compliance there are many ways to skin a cat, and using approaches that have worked for you is perfectly valid and sensible. Personal Training is an art as well as a science. But if a trainer is prepared to make hard, scientific recommendations about supplements causing a specific response, then I feel these recommendations should be backed up with hard, scientific evidence, not superstition.

The Forer Effect- The Forer effect describes our tendency to give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of our personality that are supposedly tailored to us specifically, when in fact they are vague and general.
The psychologist Bertram Forer demonstrated this by giving a personality test to his students. He then returned with what he told his students were specific analyses of their personalities, which he then asked them to rate for accuracy. The students rated them as highly accurate, at which point Forer revealed they had all been given the same reading.
You can read what he gave them if you like. Be honest about how accurately you feel it describes you, and try to imagine how you'd feel if someone gave you this following what was supposed to be a highly accurate personality test-

"You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life."

Obviously this effect is heavily relied on by psychics, astrologers and other charlatans, but is it also used (consciously or unconsciously) in the health and fitness industry? Certainly I think we see it in many "allergy tests" which purport to prescribe supplements for specific, sub-clinical ailments. So we have questions like "do you feel you could have more energy?", "do you experience mood swings?" and the like. These are so vague that almost anyone would say yes, even if you rarely experience mood swings the question causes you to think of a time that you have, making it seem all the more tailored to you. Again I'm not saying that all allergy tests are utter rubbish, just that some seem to be!

We are all guilty of falling into these cognitive traps, and bar a small group of out-and-out snake oil salesmen I believe the fitness industry is in fact full of people who genuinely want to help their clients. Being aware of these tendencies might just help us to make better choices about how we help them.


Dave Thomas said...

Really good read zack! Much of this applies to all industries but your comment about alternative medicine is particularly poignant about ours.

Polished Personal Training said...

interesting article!!!

tommo littlewood said...

I agree anecdotal use of supplements shouldn't be forced on clients but it's also the use of bad science to reinforce opinnion and social programming is just as bad.

Take for example statins

The rationale for statins in primary care is based upon flawed medical science, yet millions of people think that they are great to take because medical practitioners promote their use based upon skewd pharmaceutical companies studies.

The same can be applied to fish oils from what I have read. yet we still take science and medicine as gospel over a certain type of practitioner. How many people have died from mis prescribed vitamins compared to say Viox? How many SSRI's have been prescribed when a simple amino acid deficiency could have been identified?

You have to weigh up the research and make your stand but those who stand on th opposite side of the fence to main stream pharmacology and medicine, have something genuine to offer to those not wanting a standard approach that deals with symptom abatement and instead look for a reason for a symptom.

Team Aegis said...

I don't disagree with you Tommo, pharmaceutical companies use plenty of statistical tricks to make some drugs appear more effective than they are. SSRIs are a great example of this,and reading into them is a great education in bad science. This is hwy there is the peer review system and bodies like the cochrane collaboration, checks and balances.
While I'd be stupid to suggest that its perfect, I don't fully buy into the worldview that mainstream medicine "only ever treats the symptoms"
Also, the fact that pharmaceutical companies engage in dodgy practices doesn't automatically prove that any alternative is therefore better, in many cases all you have is a system with far less regulation and less of an evidence base.
Not to tar the entire industry with the same brush obviously, in the article I was reffering to out and out charlatanry like homeopathy and crystal healing. I'd never argue that sorting someones nutrition out will not have a significant effect on health and disease, of course it will.