Nicholas B. Tiller

The blog that unifies scientific skepticism, critical-thinking, health & fitness, and the exercise sciences

  • Nicholas B. Tiller Ph.D.

#52: The nature of decision making (in exercise and health)

“Of all the definitions of man, the worst is that he is a rational animal.” - Anatole France, Le Petit Pierre.

The incongruence between the claims made for health and fitness products and their supporting evidence is due, in its entirety, to consumer demand.

In other words, the infrequency with which we as consumers make slow, rational investments does nothing to incentivize product manufacturers to derive data-driven products. Nor do regulatory bodies demand that health and fitness products meet an obligatory threshold of evidence. An important first step in cognitive debiasing is to explore the nature of decision making in humans, the psychological biases on which the commercialization of sport and exercise depend, along with their phylogenetic history.

The nature of decision-making in humans

Decision making in health and fitness has been simplified as a two-step process: emotional, automatic, limbic-derived responses (system 1 processes); and cognitive, rational responses driven by the prefrontal cortex (system 2 processes).

When posed with any computationally complex problem, humans have been predisposed by their evolutionary history towards the former. As hunter-gatherers, for example, escaping a predator via fight or flight was an automated system 1 response – an emotional process originating in the Amygdala that required little-to-no reasoning.

Cognitive heuristics that facilitated better economy also provided a survival advantage because those who found more food and preserved energy (particularly in times of calorific scarcity) would propagate more offspring and pass-on their heuristically inclined genes. Thus, when the human (and pre-human) genome was being naturally selected, effort-reduction and economy were programmed into our decision-making machinery.

Rather than weighing-up all of the available information in decision making, economy heuristics can offer a valuable utility in business, healthcare, legal institutions, and medicine by helping individuals ignore certain data points thereby leading to more timely, accurate, and cost-effective judgments.

But knowing what information is relevant and what can be safely ignored requires knowledge, training, and experience. More commonly, system 1 decisions lead to imperfect solutions. When making choices relating to health and fitness, an economy heuristic will likely diminish the quality of the inference, contradicting our own best interests.

For instance, food choices are often instinctual and lack conscious awareness. Food cues, unchecked by rational system 2 processes, favour the selection of products high in calories, fat, and sugar. Eating behaviours where these automatic system 1 processes predominate, lead to a positive energy balance and have contributed by and large to the current obesity epidemic. The fact that human biases are shared with other primates suggests that they are evolutionarily ancient, and that the genetic determinants of decision-making remain relatively unchanged since early Homo sapiens.

In health and fitness, marketing strategies are specifically designed to exploit these rationally-flawed system 1 responses to turn potential customers into actual customers. These strategies can be crude (e.g., the striking “before-and-after” images of a body transformation following a new exercise regimen, or the glossy magazine adverts depicting unrealistic physiques), or more subtle and sophisticated (e.g., using red-label cues to condition consumers into inferring value for money).

Such emotive propositions are designed to bypass the logical decision-making centres of the brain, triggering impulse responses from the emotion-driven limbic structures. Therefore, although the quantity of inferences one can make is unquestionably greater when applying cognitive heuristics, it is the quality of the inference that is most important, particularly when choosing strategies most likely to maximise health and/or performance.

A word on social media

From the perspective of natural selection, it is likely that humans and other animals act in ways that maximize ‘fitness’ in accord with the environment in which they evolved. Nevertheless, while the genetic basis of decision making has not changed considerably since early man, contemporary culture has seen a considerable and rapid shift, far outstripping the capacity for natural selection to force adaptation.

The change in cultural dynamics has predominantly manifested in the gradually decreasing use of long-form text (books and newspapers) in favour of digital media; that is, content created, disseminated, and accessed using computers and/or mobile devices (blog posts, e-books, and social media) and more broadly encompassing medium as a form of circulation and communication.

Pertinently, studies suggest that 60% of people in the US obtain news primarily from social media. This is a concern because these digital platforms exploit several cognitive biases which lead to widespread dissemination of mis- and disinformation.

For example, most platforms function on personalization algorithms that collect data on the user’s scrolling, pausing, clicking, and sharing habits. Bespoke content is then generated based on the previous viewing history. Platform users also tend to evaluate information more favourably if it comes from within their own social media circle. The combined result is a self-contained “echo chamber” of confirmation bias in which users are never exposed to views that contradict their own.

This is contrary to the ethos of the Socratic Method. Continued competition for a limited attention span also leads to the sharing of low quality content on social media, and may partially explain why falsehoods (so-called “fake news”) diffuse significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than objective fact in all categories of information.

Our ingrained critical faculties appear to be analogue guides in a digital age, exemplifying the crucial need for better integration of critical thinking. Recommendations on reform are broad, and that’s another article entirely.