Why Do Smart People Believe Dumb Things? A Trek Into Bro Science, Diets, Vitamin Cocktails, and Other Fads
Need more focus? Eat one meal a day, only between 6:30pm and 9:30pm.
Low Libido? Shine infrared light on your balls.
Need energy? Put a stick of butter in your coffee and adopt the Paleo diet.
Cure Cancer? Try that same Keto diet.
Getting sick frequently? Take mega doses of vitamins to boost your immune system.
Tired? Stop trying to sleep straight through the night. Instead, try utilizing polyphasic sleep by taking a bunch of naps.
Can’t get out of bed to get work done? Start your day with a freezing shower.
All of these items are something that some guru, some seemingly intelligent enough person, has proclaimed as true. I know, I Know. You might read some and think “That works!” Fine. This article isn’t that type of article. I’m not going to systematically dismantle every claim.
Some of it’s harmful. Majority of it is useless. And a small portion works in specific situations or individuals. None are the keys to success in life or health.
Instead, I’m concerned with why in the world we feel SO STRONGLY about such claims. Why do all of the these seemingly smart Silicon Valley entrepreneurs fall for the same pattern of elaborate routines, supplements, and fads? Why do we all intuitively grasp at the magic pill!
Why do smart people continually jump on fads? And why are they so damn passionate about it, that if any criticism is brought up, it’s as if you stole their first born child? Why do diet and exercise trends carry a cult-like zeal?
To find the answer we have to turn to psychology and understand why people are people. A few key phenomena prevail:
- The Dunning Kruger Effect
- We overvalue our personal experience
- The importance of story telling
- A need for control and belonging
- Changing Beliefs does not depend on evidence
We Overestimate Our Knowledge
My profession is as a coach. I have a graduate degree in exercise science and wrote a book titled The Science of Running. Through my own running career and the past decade-plus as a professional in the field, my life has been dedicated to understanding the human body and performance at the highest level. None of that matters.
Countless friends and family members still feel empowered to tell me what I am doing is wrong. How world-class distance runners I coach should switch to a low-carb diet, or why my routine of running every day is going to ruin my knees, heart, and make me prematurely age. They’ll take health advice from Joe down the street who read the latest Atkins diet book over what I say.
This isn’t just my experience. Talk to any registered dietician and you’re met with similar frustrations. Their patients, who are paying them for their expertise, will often listen to some health guru with zero education hawking vitamins than them.
Does this occur in Physics or advanced mathematics? At the family Christmas party is your cousins telling your physicist brother why they are wrong about black holes? Of course not. Because physics is really freaking hard to understand, even at the most basic level.
Exercise, diet, and health, on the other hand, are simple. We can intuitively grasp them with minimal background information. We don’t need to know advanced mathematics or to perform statistical analysis to grasp the concept. Instead, for health and wellness, pick up any slew of books and within an hour you can have a pretty detailed understanding of how the body works. It’s easy to grasp the basics.
The simplicity fools us. When it comes to diet and health, this simplicity backfires. It convinces people with a little background that they know much more than they actually do.
In the world of psychology, there’s a name for such a phenomenon, The Dunning Kruger Effect. Best understood by the graphic, it occurs when a little knowledge goes a long way. We fool ourselves into knowing much more than we do.
Any Jack or Jill who takes the time to read a few books or even dive deep into some research articles feels overconfident on their knowledge. Our self-assessment on the knowledge we contain is faulty. We assess our own knowledge not by some test, but by the story we can tell about the topic. If we can wrap our head around a topic, obtain a perceived fluency that reassured “Oh I get it!” then our confidence sores.
When we know just enough to be dangerous, we can tell ourselves a coherent story. When we know a lot about a subject, the nuance and complexity emerge. As the saying goes, we quickly learn how little we actually know. Most people never reach this point.
So when we know just enough to be dangerous, we feel very confident in espousing our beliefs. The simplicity of diet and nutrition leads to this mismatch.
Lastly, we mistake general intelligence as a capacity for understanding specific contexts. So if we are highly knowledgeable and successful in internet marketing or running a business, then we carry over our confidence to fields that are in no way tied to our expertise. If we can grasp the basics of the story of the new field, even better! So what happens is those who have conquered engineering of a social network or predicting company success via investment, for example, then we will tend to be overconfident that we too can solve the problem of diet, nutrition, or whatever it is we know just enough to be dangerous about.
The result of our overestimation of our knowledge of diet and nutrition? Every guru thinks they can give diet and exercise advice. In a modern world, we make things worse, as spewing dietary advice on the internet leads to more views and likes, validating our guru as an expert in this area.
We Overestimate our Personal Experience
Let me pose a question, If I told you that I ran faster than 99.9% of the people reading this article, had a resting heart rate that dipped down to 32 and impeccable health by running 15 miles per day, would you say that everyone should go run 15 miles every day?I hope not! But that’s exactly what we do with diet.
We assume because this piece of advice appeared to work for me, that just about every other person in the world would benefit from it.
Where does this come from? We tend to overvalue our personal experiences, our N=1, for good reason. It’s right in front of us. We experienced it. Unfortunately, there’s a slew of cognitive biases that relate to our overvaluing of our personal experience. From the confirmation bias, where we tend to see only the things that confirm what our experience was, to the availability heuristic, where we rely on what comes to mind quickly.
We have an inbuilt propensity to think that, if it worked for me, then it must work for everyone else. We discount the complexity and individuality of problems.
Think about the world of endurance training. We know through research, that even if people do the EXACT same workout tailored to their individual needs, the responses vary widely. In one study, they found anywhere from a 30% improvement to a 2% decrease in performance. Despite tailoring the training so that individuals were training at the same relative effort (70% of VO2max).
The same principle applies to just about everything we do. Just because it works for you, doesn’t mean that it’s the magic pill for everyone else.
Think about Jim Ryun, former mile World Record Holder who ran 3:51 in 1966. His training was famous for insanely difficult interval workouts, like forty 400 meter repeats. His training was so difficult that even today, no one tries to replicate it. Yet, he ran faster than any human had ever done. So it worked, right?
For 99.99% of people, doing anything remotely similar to Ryun would be akin to fitness suicide. Leading to burnout and overtraining. And in fact, for Ryun, it likely caught up to him, leading to such experiences later in his career.
Sometimes you can get good outcomes DESPITE what you are doing. Yes, I realize that is hard to grasp. But talent or some genetic predisposition to respond in a particular way can overpower
When it comes to health and fitness, we OVERVALUE our contribution. We get deceived by our personal experience. Thinking that what we are doing is leading to all of the beneficial outcomes. We have a hard time seeing the big picture and understanding that other things outside of those we can control impact our health.
So if you lost a ton of weight off eating only sticks of butter dipped in lard, great. Good for you. But that doesn’t mean it’s a great diet. Or even good for you.
The Story is All That Matters
Andy Stover, a good friend, and social worker, once told me that when it comes to helping individuals in his practice, ‘the story in their head is all that matters.’ While Stover was talking about the power of stories to impact mindsets, the same thing applies when it comes to why we fall for fads.
When it comes to such fads, what matters is can we create a bio-plausible story for why this works. The narrative is a convincing argument. Not evidence. We create the bio-plausible story first, and then we hope to create and weave the evidence around it.
Look no further than the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis for obesity. A story crafted and created to explain why we get fat. The only problem? Studies, funded by their own group, failed to confirm the nice and neat story after the fact. (Quick, if you believe in that story, how did it make you feel reading that sentence? Not that great. Defensive? Want to blast me and tell me how I’m wrong? Great! You’re seeing how your body responds…)
There’s nothing wrong with that if the story then dies and a new hypothesis emerges. But instead, what often happens is we put the bio-plausible narrative above the evidence. We dig in to defend the story.
We did this same thing with areas of depression, genetics, diet, and more. Plausible stories that are intuitively appealing, so they stick. As humans, we love and depend on narratives. Storytelling fosters cooperation and establishes social norms.
The problem is, as we know in the drug research world, our narratives often fall apart. Why? The human body is incredibly complex and GREAT at compensating and having multiple levels of control. So while we intuitively love simple answers, unfortunately, they often fail under pressure.
A Need for Control and Belonging:
According to Self-Determination theory, we have three innate psychological needs that largely impact our well-being. It’s one of the most well-researched theories in psychology, developed in the 1970s and widely applied.
Two of the three variables are highly relevant to why smart people fall for fads: Our need for control over our lives and our need for belonging.
Think about your health. We know that we will die someday, and we know the upper limits of that timeline. At any time, we could get a surprise diagnosis of cancer, some autoimmune disease, or a neuro-degenerative disease. It’s probably happened to our friends and loved ones.
The one thing that impacts us the most, our long-term health and ability to live, is often outside of our control. At the same time, in a chaotic modern world, how we feel is slowly being hijacked. Rates of depression and anxiety are ever increasing.
Is it any wonder then, that when it comes to our health and wellness, we grasp on to aspects of our diet and routines which give us a semblance of having control over how we feel and the direction of our lives.
Is it any surprise that biohacking nuts are proclaiming that they will find ways to live until they are 180 years old?
Our need to have control and to shape our destiny runs deep. As Self Determination Theory points out, it’s one of our deep psychological drivers. With a sense of control over the outcomes, we feel motivated and have a sense of fulfillment and increased well-being.
Is it any wonder then we grasp onto elaborate and restrictive dietary habits? Or plan out routines that involve taking a freezing shower, the time in the sauna, then a dip in the ice bath?
In many ways, similar to someone suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, when we are faced with things that we can’t always control (i.e. how we feel or our immediate health), the only way to cope is by performing elaborate routines that help us deal with the sensation of discomfort that uncertainty brings about.
In those in power, the CEO types, this need for control runs even deeper. One of the reasons people desire such power is for that exact reason; a need for control over their destiny. Not over others, but over what they do. Entrepreneurs tend to have a high locus of control, meaning they tend to be more persistent and see themselves as the reason for success. Is it any wonder that entrepreneurs who have succeeded partially because of this belief, fall victim to it’s dark side (i.e. overvaluing their impact)? This could partially explain why SIlicon Valley is awash in such dietary and health fads: Proclaiming a diet as the cure comforts us against the harsh reality of life and death that all of us face.
Our Identity: Are You With Us Or Against Us?
A need to belong is one of the most powerful drivers there is, especially in an increasingly isolated society.
When we join a Crossfit gym, declare ourselves part of the Paleo diet crew, or whatever it is you do, you’re not just joining a community (which is great!). You are establishing an identity. You are saying, I’m part of this group.
If you encounter someone else who does CrossFit or eats paleo, there’s an instant connection. A sense of “this person understands and gets me!” Those feel-good sensations rush through your body.
These sensations reinforce our sense of belonging. That we are part of the “in-group”, the cool kids club. That when we all come together on twitter or in real life to argue against some guy or gal who talks down about our group, we receive a hit of feel-good hormones that validates our behavior. It feels good to tweet to Dr. Stephen Guyenet that he’s clueless and wrong about his dietary advice.
From an evolutionary standpoint, forming groups was foundational to our survival. We needed to identify who is part of our tribe, and who is on the outside looking in.
Once our group identity is formed, then we know who we need to protect. It’s no wonder that if you post anything about the Keto or Paleo diet, or Crossfit, that you are instantly met with a barrage of responses attacking your tweets or character.
It’s part of being human. We’re tribal creatures, and we’ve slowly replaced our familial or neighborly tribe with tribes based on identifiers like diet, religion, or exercise group.
But, when we tie ourselves to some group, an interesting phenomenon happens. Our ability to be thoughtful and critical goes out the window. We get defensive and protective. Incapable of evaluating criticism.
Professor of Religion, Alan Levinovitz sums it up, “when it came to diet and health, people were prone to irrationality and they were susceptible to promises that in other contexts perhaps they’d be more critical [of].”
Identities cement our beliefs. And when they are accompanied by a group that gives us a sense of belonging, it only makes them ten times more rigid.
Our Minds are designed to resist
Once we’ve locked into our belief, whether it’s that carbs or fat are the devil, how do we change our minds?
Most people assume that evidence is the way forward. If I could just prove my argument with a slew of studies or a coherent argument, then he or she will certainly change their mind!
But that doesn’t work. Observe any diet debate with knowledgeable individuals and research studies are slung across the Internet to each other. This group cites 15 studies, and then the opposite view throws 10 other studies back at them.
Why doesn’t evidence change beliefs?
Step back and think for a minute about how beliefs are formed and what occurs when they are challenged. Let’s say you grow up believing that children should be spanked. Where did that belief come from? Maybe it started with some personal experience as a child. Your parent spanked you after and your behavior seemed to change. Maybe you have this feeling that kids are soft now, and spanking is something we need to bring back?
What happens when you encounter research that counters this belief?
Do you immediately accept it? Not likely.
Instead, you likely enter a sort of defensive mode. Your mind rifles through the reasons why this article is wrong. You discount it, brushing the research off as biased. Maybe it’s funded by some parenting organization that may have an agenda or maybe it has a small flaw in the research design. When we are confronted with ideas or evidence that contradicts the story in our head, our mind goes on a mission to close that uncertainty.
In a recent study, researchers scanned individuals brains while presenting them with evidence that conflicted with their deeply held political beliefs. What happened? Two areas of the brain lit up. The first, the amygdala is related to stress and threat responses. The second, related to our sense of self, or our identity.
When we encounter arguments or evidence, we often treat them as literal threats. As an attack to martial the defenses against.
Remarkably similar to seeing a snake slithering on the path in front of us, our brain treats an attack on our beliefs as a threat that could harm us. But unlike a physical threat, the danger of evidence or arguments against our beliefs is we perceive them not as an attack on ideas, but an attack on our literal self.
So when I’m criticizing a Ketogenic diet or Crossfit workouts, you don’t take it as if I was correcting your grammar in your term paper. Instead, you take it as an attack against who you are as a person.
As we explored in The Passion Paradox, what often occurs is we find our identity by tying it to the activities we do and the groups we belong to. If going to church is important, our identity might wrap around Catholicism or Judaism. If we grew up playing baseball, then that becomes a central part of who we are. Our need to create a cohesive story of who we are and to what we belong to is central to being a human.
So when we become enraptured with some fitness, dietary routine, or political party, and it becomes a central part of our story, it becomes incredibly difficult to step back and see the big picture. If someone criticizes that thing, it’s not an attack on the idea, but an attack on who we are as a person.
Is it any wonder that arguments on diet, exercise, and health invoke such emotion? On a recent twitter rant on many of the same topics in this thread, I experienced this first hand. The amount of “Do you lift? You’re a stick! Look at the size of your arms, how can you know anything about diet” tweets was comical. But it demonstrated the phenomenon perfectly. When faced with ideas that counteract their belief, what occurred? A sensation of threat, followed by a “fight” response.
Even in the strange world of social media, we are still governed by our primal instincts formed years ago on the African savanna.
Next time you feel that urge to enter defensive mode, protect your sense of self and the tribe you belong to, maybe just maybe take a moment and sit with those feelings. Are you about to call me a pencil neck nerd because it makes you feel good, or because what I’m saying really truly is incorrect?
So… How do we clean up our thinking? I recently read an article by Alex Hutchinson (sp?) in Outside that cross-referenced a journal article stating that most scientific research is false. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182327/
I’d say that person does not understand what science IS. It is a process for determining what is most likely to be true among known possibilities, which change as data and circumstances change what we deem possible through shared experience. The statement is like saying “Most of democracy isn’t true.” Which is ridiculous, since democracy is a method, a process, not an end product. It’s outcomes can and do change as the inputs into the process change over time as people and society change over time. Science is not scripture and so does not hold Truths for all time—Truths that are in some way separate from the outcomes of the ongoing process itself. Scripture doesn’t do that either, but because of faith and organized religion, most people BELIEVE it does. Science ain’t like that.
Thanks for your comments. Did you read the nih.gov study? Alex H. does understand science, but unless you read the journal article you can’t get the full context.
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