Narrative Bias And Fitness Failure

In Ypsilanti, Michigan there are three men that live together, eat together, and hang out together. They’re entirely normal, except for the fact that they live in a mental institution.

Why? Each one of these guys is thoroughly convinced they’re Christ.

That itself is crazy, but it’s not anything new. Crazy people claim to be God all over the world. What’s crazy is that each of the three Christ’s can never be convinced one of the other men is the real Christ.

Each man tells a different story that, logically, gets torn apart. Psychiatrists aren’t the ones tearing apart the arguments, though. The other Christ’s destroy each other’s argument and poke holes in the shoddy logic.

Each Christ’s story constantly evolves to adapt to the holes being poked in it by the other Christ’s. Not one of the three Christ’s ever admits to being wrong. They keep telling the story, the story of why they are the one, true God.

These men experience strong narrative bias. You and I have the exact same problem.

For those who have been living under a rock and didn’t pay attention in elementary school, narrative is a story. Our brains have evolved in such a way that we make sense of the world through narrative.

Everything to us is narrative.

Our ability to explain life through narrative has evolved into a sophisticated process. So much that we don’t recognize it anymore. We’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we’re rational beings capable of logical, rational thought.

There is almost no greater example of this than in health and fitness.

Every single day millions of people fail at their diet or fitness goals. Whether it be a falling off the diet wagon, quitting the gym because “they didn’t have the time”, or any myriad of excuses.

When this happens to us, we find ways to weave this into our personal narrative. We tell ourselves how much we have going on, and why we can’t make it into the gym. We adapt our stories to justify our failures. Sound familiar?

The funny thing is, you cut right through the shit when other people do it.

If your friend who needs to lose weight were to do the same, you would criticize her to your spouse. You’d cut through her shitty excuses with a freaking light saber. You’d recognize all the time she wastes watching Real Housewives, and point out all the shitty food she eats.

Why can’t we do this to ourselves?

This is where the three Christ’s reappear to learn us a thing or two. Your brain is tricking you with narrative bias. It’s an evolutionary trait that sets us apart from other animals. When given the choice, your brain prefers to give and receive info in the form of a narrative.

The human brain has about 85 billion neurons. Compare that to a cat, the most evil creature in the animal kingdom, which only has 1 billion neurons. A ton of information is flooding the brain at any given moment. With all that info, the brain has to organize it somehow. It does so in story form.

Stories are how we make sense of the world.

When was the last time you set a fitness goal for yourself, and failed miserably? What was the story you told yourself to justify it? You were busy? Or there was a lot going on in life?

What about a friend of yours that set a similar goal and failed? They probably told themselves a similar story, but you saw right through it of course. You saw the excuses they made, the time they wasted, and all the mistakes they made.

Dave McRaney, who wrote a book that talks about this, says that “watching people lie to themselves is a part of daily life.” The researcher behind the men of Ypsilanti, Milton Rokeach, adds that “you seem to be able to see through the lies and rationalizations of other people.”

That’s narrative bias in action. We’re fantastic at seeing through other people’s bullshit with our brain powered light saber, but not our own.

The great brain grudge match.

The two hemispheres of our brain battle one another to tell stories. It’s called push pull antagonism. The more novel the situation, the worse it gets. Push pull antagonism is nothing more than the two hemispheres of the brain battling each other for control.

The left hemisphere is responsible for telling kick ass stories. Think of the left brain as the guy who takes a trip to Vegas, and exaggerates EVERYTHING. He’s not that cool, but he likes to think he is.

When things get too wild though, the right brain comes waltzing in playing devil’s advocate and bringing things back to reality. The right brain is the friend who knows what actually happened in Vegas.

Your left brain is a double agent that sabotages your efforts.

As life begins throwing curveballs at you, you find a way to cope. This is where fitness dreams come to die at the hands of the left brain. It starts with procrastinating. You tell yourself you’ll put it off today, and pick it up again tomorrow.

Tomorrow comes, more gets in the way. You say you’ll do it the next day.

How many diets have failed because they were supposed to “start tomorrow”?

Narrative bias is at play. You’re telling yourself a story of why you can’t make it happen today, the next day, the day after that, and so on. Other people see right through this, but you can’t. It’s your own personal narrative.

Getting the right brain involved is key to success.

One of my favorite tools in combating narrative bias is writing down my stats. What do I mean by stats? I mean that I have a fitness rookie card with all my stats on it that’ll sell for millions of dollars one day.

When I’m working towards a specific goal, whether it be getting to a certain body fat %, a powerlifting meet, a Tough Mudder, or half marathon, I keep track of everything.

I track my workouts via Fitocracy.

I track my food intake via MyFitnessPal.

I keep a training/life journal

Why? The numbers and data tell their own story.

If someone is 8 weeks into a diet and they haven’t seen any results, it’s pretty damn hard to explain why it isn’t working if there isn’t anything to look back on. If food intake has been tracked – we’re in business baby. We review the data, and make tweaks.

If training isn’t getting results, I need to reevaluate my training. If I don’t have anything to reevaluate, I’m shit outta luck. If I can look back through my Fitocracy training logs and notice that I’m not really training hard enough – that’s valuable info. I start training harder.

What about something more subjective, like how I feel? This is where a training/life journal comes into play. I couldn’t tell you what I ate for lunch last Thursday, so I definitely can’t tell you how my training session went 3 weeks ago. If I’m working towards a goal though, I need to know how those sessions went.

A training/life journal allows me to recap and “get inside my own head” from that session, and see what I was thinking. Did I feel like the weights felt heavier than normal? Was I stiff? Did I have an injury I felt cropping up? That insight is invaluable.

Stories are valuable. It’s easy to make the argument that stories are part of what set us apart from monkeys. If you let them though, stories will fuck up your entire world. They’ll lead you to believe that your failure was easily explained, and it’s all a part of your personal narrative. Don’t let stories fuck up your world. The last thing you want is to take a trip to Ypsilanti, Michigan as a patient. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

thumbnail image – Amy Selleck

Personal trainer, writer, and former Texan.

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