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7 Feb, 2020

As a Personal Trainer or nutrition coach, you’ll likely still marvel at people blindly following the latest trendy diet or workout. You may have marvelled at the debates raging on social media over the recent Game Changers documentary on Netflix.

If you’re up to date with the latest evidence, you’ll know that for any weight loss programme to succeed, there has to be a calorie deficit and for any exercise programme to be effective, there has to be progressive overload.

Whilst the specifics of what constitutes a calorie deficit or where an appropriate level of overload lies can be incredibly nuanced, the number of people that ignore this in favour of ketones, the metabolic window or muscle confusion, can be staggering.

So why is it, that smart people, possessed of an adequate supply of common sense in most areas of their lives, can behave so foolishly when it comes to exercise and nutrition?

The answer lies in how our brains process conflicting information.

In 1959 leading psychologist Elliot Aronson and his colleague Judson Mills conducted an experiment to evaluate Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.

Festinger’s theory essentially proposes that inconsistency among the beliefs or behaviours of an individual, will cause an uncomfortable psychological tension (which he called cognitive dissonance). This will in turn lead people to change one of the inconsistent elements to reduce the dissonance or to add consonant elements to restore psychological comfort.

Aronson wanted to evaluate if the cognitive dissonance and resulting changes could be impacted via the initiation into a group.

What they found was that the more severe the initiation into a group, the more attractive membership of that group became.

When you think of all the crazy diets and exercise programmes out there, do you sometimes wonder why on earth anyone would stick to them? The answer is partly because they’re crazy.

The frustrating part is that this isn’t the most surprising takeaway from the research. When Aronson explained the purpose of the study to the subjects who’d undergone the most severe initiation, pointing out that the only reason they’d enjoyed the most boring discussions on earth, was because their initiation had been so severe, they disagreed.

They assured him that whilst that may be true of everyone else who took part, they had genuinely enjoyed the talks. Even when he explained that the talks had been designed to be as boring, awkward and mundane as possible, they still stuck to their guns.


So, what does that mean?

Should we start making client sessions more severe or embarrassing? Should we make nutrition guidance more absurd?

No, of course not.

What we need to do is recognise that people’s belief in a particular approach may not be completely without issues. Their brains could be reframing information to ease their cognitive dissonance.

The client who believes in a healthy lifestyle and good nutrition but can’t help bingeing at the weekends and skipping their workouts, will have a perfectly valid reason for doing so. To them.

Instead of pulling our hair out, we need to understand that these individuals are essentially experiencing psychological pain and are simply easing it through their behaviours.

With this is mind, it’s down to us as coaches to transition these clients more gradually through the next stages of their journey.

The Japanese have a wonderful philosophy called ‘kaizen’, which loosely translates as small steps or the more current and popular ‘marginal gains’.

When a client or friend displays these signs of dissonance, look for the small, seemingly insignificant, next steps that will move them towards their goals and start there.

Or, you could try the cyclical, keto, paleo, CrossFit, plant-based Cambridge diet. I hear it’s the next big thing……

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