Can You Trust Yourself?

Confirmation Bias

Often in the health and fitness field, we hear that we are to “listen to our bodies”, “find our flow”, or practice “intuitive eating.” 

This sort of thing has been around for a long time.  We are reminded of the old adage, “To thine own self be true,” which did not come from a deep thinker like Aristotle, but rather from the Bard himself, William Shakespeare.  Apparently this phrase comes near the beginning of Hamlet, when father Polonius is giving his son Laertes advice as to how to behave while at university.  Wow.  Can you imagine your parents sending you off to college with this advice?  What if your version of staying true to yourself was making sure you didn’t miss any chances to socialize? 

Which brings me to the present day, and back to health and fitness.  What if our version of “intuitive eating” or “listening to our bodies” means giving in to a craving for chocolate?  Or a strong desire to stay on the couch?  What if we really don’t like to exercise, or know in our hearts that a piece of chocolate cake will make us feel better? 

On the other hand, there is an upside.  There are definitely some times when listening to your body is a good thing.  When you are exercising, stretching, or even doing things around the house, you can pay attention to when something hurts.  Doing a move your body isn’t used to or ready for can cause injury.  This includes stretching before warming up, or stretching too far (it hurts). 

Similarly, when eating.  We can really benefit from paying attention to when we are full, and calling it quits at that point.  We can notice that too much sugar, or fat, or salt, makes us feel bad. 

But as noted above, things can get tricky. 

That’s because of the way or brains work.  In recent decades, science has enabled us to pinpoint activity in various areas of the brain that fire up when we are involved in different types of thinking. 

They have noticed that our brains like to be efficient.  Makes sense.  Efficiency helps us to sort through the tons of information that come our way during the day.  In order to not become overwhelmed, our brains filter out the stuff that doesn’t relate to what we already know, or think we know.  That way, our brains actually pay preferential attention to what agrees with what we have already learned and what we believe to be true. 

This type of brain activity produces a pervasive thing called “confirmation bias.”  A cousin to confirmation bias is another one called “desirability bias.”   Desirability bias is another way of saying “wishful thinking.”  Both of these biases can help us breeze through our days, but can be a real nuisance.  This applies to many facets of our lives, including our health and fitness. 

What are some of the negative consequences of these types of thinking? 

Confirmation bias can explain why two people with opposing views on a topic can see the same evidence and both come away feeling validated by it.
This can happen when, say, the information is presented as something that “may happen” if something else happens.  In the realm of nutrition, for instance, perhaps there is information presented that a vegan lifestyle “may” lead to a longer life.  A naysayer could conclude that a vegan lifestyle is no guarantee of a longer life, so why bother?  Vegans would embrace that statement as confirmation that they are on track for greater longevity.

We can have false confidence in our judgment.
Here, the most blatant example that I can think of is in the area of eating.  Research has shown that a dominant belief is that in order to lose weight, a person has to go on a diet.  This in spite of repeated and pervasive statistics showing that diets do not work in the long run.  And yet, individuals continue to choose dieting, even to an extreme, in order to lose weight.  Often this means trying another diet and another, thinking that there must be one out there that works.  This in spite of the evidence and their own past experiences.

Our opinion can become our identity.
Here is where it can really be a downer.  Your self-image can become one of being a failure at dieting and exercise.  Or, “just” someone who has irresistible cravings, or maybe someone who was never good in gym class.  As time goes on, you can actually accumulate more and more evidence for what you think are immoveable features about yourself. 

Bottom line:  What this means is that we cannot always be unbiased observers of ourselves.  You could say that we cannot trust ourselves.  The kicker is that we often aren’t even aware of it, because our brains are blocking observations that could discredit our biases.    

What to do?

We can start by becoming aware that confirmation bias exists, and that we all have it.  It is part of being human. 

  • We can embrace being wrong.  Adam Grant, author of “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know” says that “being wrong is the only way I know I’ve learned anything.”  In order to combat confirmation bias, we can actively search for ways we may be wrong.
  • Who we are is a question of what we value, not what we believe.  In other words, our beliefs are a compilation of what we have been taught and then what we have observed.  In terms of health and fitness, when/if we are deciding to make some positive changes, it starts with WHY we want to do this for ourselves. It is not helpful to base it on what we think we should be doing.   Instead, we can explore what we value and want for our lives.
  • Commit to learning.  We can begin to search out where we might be wrong.  Beliefs are things that can evolve.  Question your assumptions and expose yourself to other points of view.  If something isn’t working or if you are hooked on a certain perception of yourself, realize you can learn something different. 

Can we trust ourselves?  Often the answer is NO!  But if we can learn from our mistakes and keep our sense of humor (because we are all flawed humans), we can get a better grip on trusting ourselves when it comes to making healthy choices. 

Courage,
Kristen

P.S. For some related examples, check out the Red Flag Cheat Sheet on my Resources Page.

© 2022 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: Cemile Bingol | iStock

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