Magness Speaks — Why We are Bad at Predicting Our Own Behavior and What that Means in Coaching
I’m a science junkie. I admit it and while when I was a teenager I might have downplayed that side of me, now it’s something I wear quite openly on my sleeve. This couldn’t have been displayed more openly when at the post-USA’s Run Gum party. I was sitting at a table with coach Daniel Goetz, Phoebe Wright, Angela Bizzari and the Brooks crew talking about a study. Yes, I was at a post-race party, detailing a psychology study. If that doesn’t sum me up, I’m not sure what will.
In a particular set of studies, they looked at how accurate people were at predicting their own behavior versus a stranger predicting their behavior. In one study, they had college students predict how nervous they’d be when talking with new people. The individuals were worse at predicting than people who had just met them. Another study looked at how well people could predict their future behaviors, in this case in purchasing flowers for a charity drive. 83% of the individuals predicted that they would buy flowers, while strangers predicted that 56% of the people would buy flowers. The actual percentage of people who bought flowers for the charity was 43%. So the strangers predicted behavior outcomes to a much larger degree. The same effect can be seen on giving donations and a lot of other behavioral outcomes.
The point is we suck at predicting our own behavior. As Timothy Wilson writes in his book, Strangers to Ourselves:
“People use different kinds of information when predicting their own versus other people’s behaviors. When predicting other people’s actions, we rely mostly on our cumulative experience of how the average person would act…When predicting our own actions we rely more on the ‘inside information’ about our own personalities.”
And that got me to thinking about the role of the coach on the elite level.
It’s to notice the voice inflections, subconscious behavioral cues, and indicators that allow for making better coaching decisions. I’m sure almost every elite out there could develop some semblance of workouts that would get them near peak fitness, but what they miss is that person.
My own running is a great example of that, and it’s part of the reason why I always sought out a coach instead of trying to do it all on my own. More recently, where my running has evolved into a state of trying to stay fit enough to where I can still put my college guys in place every once in a while to keep their ego’s in check (or…to be able to keep up long enough to do some on the run coaching…), I have adopted a go with the flow attitude. Even there though, I make dumb decisions with myself.
I’ve been injured or coming back from an injury for months and it all occurred because I ran a 2×800 workout fast in spikes for the first time in a year then 3 days later ran my first half marathon. Hello, partial Achilles tear.
The point isn’t that I’m an idiot overall, it’s just that when it comes to myself, like everyone, I’m biased. Every single one of us is biased by the narrative that goes on in our head.
And this is why I strongly believe in having a coach. It’s not so much for the training, though that is important, it’s for the outside observation. I always say, a coach's job at the elite level is to hold the reins. It’s not so much to motivate or poke and prod to get through a workout, instead it’s to prevent smart people from making dumb mistakes. It’s not the fault of those intelligent people; it’s the fault of the way our brains developed. In his book Timothy Wilson outlines a compelling narrative around the research described above. His argument is that people are aware of their conscious feelings and thoughts, but miss their own subconscious or nonconscious evaluation. Similar to Daniel Kahneman’s system 1 vs system 2 line of thinking, we only see part of the story. In his book, Wilson, outlines a personal story we all can relate to that outlines the practical implication of this research.
In the story, he outlines his friend Susan who is thoroughly convinced that she was in love with a man named Stephen. She was convinced because he checked off every box that she consciously thought she wanted, from shared interest to personality type to job security.
“They dated for over a year, and the relationship seemed to be getting quite serious, except for one problem-it was obvious to all Susan’s friends that she did not love Stephen. She thought she did, but as far as we could see, Susan had convinced herself that she felt something she didn’t.”
And the point is that people from the outside could tell what it took Susan over a year to come to terms with and realize. The reason was simple, she was blinded by the conscious “feelings” and narrative that she had convinced herself of. She had to fight the “ought to’s” in order to realize what her true feelings were. Her friends, from the outside noticed early on. It’s the difference between recognizing subconscious behavioral cues and sticking with the narrative we have in our own head. Each side is only privy to one of those sources of information.
So let’s get back to coaching for a second. As a coach, when we collect feedback we need to understand both sources of information. We ask questions about how the athlete feels, have them fill out logs, and so forth to get inside their own mind and to see the world through their lens. At the same time, we need to pay attention to behavioral cues, from posture, to tone of voice, to their energy they bring to the track. Many of these things we pick up subconsciously from just being around our athletes long enough. We know what their norms are and if they deviate from them, red flags may go up in our own minds. It’s about taking these two pieces of information and using them to develop and adjust training.
Often what occurs in coaching elites, is that their internal drive is so high that the narrative they are constructing is one of being tough and pushing through anything that presents itself. Outwardly, they will express a desire to keep pushing and perhaps tell the coach that they are fine, so that they justify that story in their head, while all of their subconscious cues are pointing to distress from the workout. It’s our job as a coach to know what side is telling the “truth.”
A lot of times people ask me if coaching many elites from afar is difficult. You miss the interactions and behavioral cues on one hand, which makes it more difficult. The key I’ve found is getting the communication right so that we are on the same page, which can be hard at first. But in some ways it’s easier too, because I’m removed enough from the scene that I remain totally objective and unbiased by the information that I get. So while I miss certain bits of information, I’m also not biased towards other parts.
So the point is this, as a coach realize what your job is. It’s to be able to work outside of that conscious narrative and to notice the seemingly obvious. It’s to be the person who while still close to the athlete, can be that individual who prevents someone from being blind to the obvious. It’s to keep smart people from doing dumb things.
*note: a previous version of his post was originally published by Steve Magness on The Science of Running on July 3rd, 2015. It has since been very slightly updated.