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← Why some people find exercise harder than others | Emily Balcetis | TEDxNewYork

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  1. Vision is the most important
  2. and prioritized sense that we have.
  3. We are constantly looking
  4. at the world around us,
  5. and quickly we identify and make sense
  6. of what it is that we see.
  7. Let's just start with an example
  8. of that very fact.
  9. I'm going to show you
    a photograph of a person,
  10. just for a second or two,
  11. and I'd like for you to identify
  12. what emotion is on his face.
  13. Ready?
  14. Here you go. Go with your gut reaction.
  15. Okay. What did you see?
  16. Well, we actually surveyed
  17. over 120 individuals,
  18. and the results were mixed.
  19. People did not agree
  20. on what emotion they saw on his face.
  21. Maybe you saw discomfort.
  22. That was the most frequent response
  23. that we received.
  24. But if you asked the person on your left,
  25. they might have said regret or skepticism,
  26. and if you asked somebody on your right,
  27. they might have said
    something entirely different,
  28. like hope or empathy.
  29. So we are all looking
  30. at the very same face again.
  31. We might see something
  32. entirely different,
  33. because perception is subjective.
  34. What we think we see
  35. is actually filtered
  36. through our own mind's eye.
  37. Of course, there are many other examples
  38. of how we see the world
    through own mind's eye.
  39. I'm going to give you just a few.
  40. So dieters, for instance,
  41. see apples as larger
  42. than people who are not counting calories.
  43. Softball players see the ball as smaller
  44. if they've just come out of a slump,
  45. compared to people who had
    a hot night at the plate.
  46. And actually, our political beliefs also
  47. can affect the way we see other people,
  48. including politicians.
  49. So my research team and I
    decided to test this question.
  50. In 2008, Barack Obama
    was running for president
  51. for the very first time,
  52. and we surveyed hundreds of Americans
  53. one month before the election.
  54. What we found in this survey
  55. was that some people, some Americans,
  56. think photographs like these
  57. best reflect how Obama really looks.
  58. Of these people, 75 percent
  59. voted for Obama in the actual election.
  60. Other people, though,
    thought photographs like these
  61. best reflect how Obama really looks.
  62. 89 percent of these people
  63. voted for McCain.
  64. We presented many photographs of Obama
  65. one at a time,
  66. so people did not realize
    that what we were changing
  67. from one photograph to the next
  68. was whether we had artificially lightened
  69. or darkened his skin tone.
  70. So how is that possible?
  71. How could it be
    that when I look at a person,
  72. an object, or an event,
  73. I see something very different
  74. than somebody else does?
  75. Well, the reasons are many,
  76. but one reason requires that we understand
  77. a little bit more about how our eyes work.
  78. So vision scientists know
  79. that the amount of information
  80. that we can see
  81. at any given point in time,
  82. what we can focus on,
    is actually relatively small.
  83. What we can see with great sharpness
  84. and clarity and accuracy
  85. is the equivalent
  86. of the surface area of our thumb
  87. on our outstretched arm.
  88. Everything else around that is blurry,
  89. rendering much of what is presented
  90. to our eyes as ambiguous.
  91. But we have to clarify
  92. and make sense of what it is that we see,
  93. and it's our mind
    that helps us fill in that gap.
  94. As a result, perception
    is a subjective experience,
  95. and that's how we end up seeing
  96. through our own mind's eye.
  97. So, I'm a social psychologist,
  98. and it's questions like these
  99. that really intrigue me.
  100. I am fascinated by those times
  101. when people do not see eye to eye.
  102. Why is it that somebody might
  103. literally see the glass as half full,
  104. and somebody literally sees it
  105. as half empty?
  106. What is it about what one person
    is thinking and feeling
  107. that leads them to see the world
  108. in an entirely different way?
  109. And does that even matter?
  110. So to begin to tackle these questions,
  111. my research team and I
    decided to delve deeply
  112. into an issue that has received
  113. international attention:
  114. our health and fitness.
  115. Across the world,
  116. people are struggling
    to manage their weight,
  117. and there is a variety of strategies
  118. that we have to help us
    keep the pounds off.
  119. For instance, we set
    the best of intentions
  120. to exercise after the holidays,
  121. but actually, the majority of Americans
  122. find that their New Year's resolutions
  123. are broken by Valentine's Day.
  124. We talk to ourselves
  125. in very encouraging ways,
  126. telling ourselves this is our year
  127. to get back into shape,
  128. but that is not enough to bring us back
  129. to our ideal weight.
  130. So why?
  131. Of course, there is no simple answer,
  132. but one reason, I argue,
  133. is that our mind's eye
  134. might work against us.
  135. Some people may literally see exercise
  136. as more difficult,
  137. and some people might literally
  138. see exercise as easier.
  139. So, as a first step
    to testing these questions,
  140. we gathered objective measurements
  141. of individuals' physical fitness.
  142. We measured the circumference
    of their waist,
  143. compared to the circumference
    of their hips.
  144. A higher waist-to-hip ratio
  145. is an indicator of being
    less physically fit
  146. than a lower waist-to-hip ratio.
  147. After gathering these measurements,
  148. we told our participants
  149. that they would walk to a finish line
  150. while carrying extra weight
  151. in a sort of race.
  152. But before they did that,
  153. we asked them to estimate the distance
  154. to the finish line.
  155. We thought that the physical states
    of their body
  156. might change how they perceived
    the distance.
  157. So what did we find?
  158. Well, waist-to-hip ratio
  159. predicted perceptions of distance.
  160. People who were out of shape and unfit
  161. actually saw the distance
    to the finish line
  162. as significantly greater
  163. than people who were in better shape.
  164. People's states of their own body
  165. changed how they perceived
    the environment.
  166. But so too can our mind.
  167. In fact, our bodies and our minds
  168. work in tandem
  169. to change how we see the world around us.
  170. That led us to think that maybe people
  171. with strong motivations
  172. and strong goals to exercise
  173. might actually see
    the finish line as closer
  174. than people who have weaker motivations.
  175. So to test whether motivations
  176. affect our perceptual
    experiences in this way,
  177. we conducted a second study.
  178. Again, we gathered objective measurements
  179. of people's physical fitness,
  180. measuring the circumference of their waist
  181. and the circumference of their hips,
  182. and we had them do
    a few other tests of fitness.
  183. Based on feedback that we gave them,
  184. some of our participants told us
  185. they're not motivated
    to exercise any more.
  186. They felt like they already met
    their fitness goals
  187. and they weren't going
    to do anything else.
  188. These people were not motivated.
  189. Other people, though,
    based on our feedback,
  190. told us they were highly motivated
    to exercise.
  191. They had a strong goal
    to make it to the finish line.
  192. But again, before we had them
    walk to the finish line,
  193. we had them estimate the distance.
  194. How far away was the finish line?
  195. And again, like the previous study,
  196. we found that waist-to-hip ratio
  197. predicted perceptions of distance.
  198. Unfit individuals saw
    the distance as farther,
  199. saw the finish line as farther away,
  200. than people who were in better shape.
  201. Importantly, though, this only happened
  202. for people who were not motivated
  203. to exercise.
  204. On the other hand,
  205. people who were highly motivated
    to exercise
  206. saw the distance as short.
  207. Even the most out of shape individuals
  208. saw the finish line
  209. as just as close,
  210. if not slightly closer,
  211. than people who were in better shape.
  212. So our bodies can change
  213. how far away that finish line looks,
  214. but people who had committed
    to a manageable goal
  215. that they could accomplish
    in the near future
  216. and who believed that they were capable
  217. of meeting that goal
  218. actually saw the exercise as easier.
  219. That led us to wonder,
  220. is there a strategy that we could use
  221. and teach people that would help
  222. change their perceptions of the distance,
  223. help them make exercise look easier?
  224. So we turned
    to the vision science literature
  225. to figure out what should we do,
  226. and based on what we read,
    we came up with a strategy
  227. that we called,
    "Keep your eyes on the prize."
  228. So this is not the slogan
  229. from an inspirational poster.
  230. It's an actual directive
  231. for how to look around your environment.
  232. People that we trained in this strategy,
  233. we told them to focus their attention
    on the finish line,
  234. to avoid looking around,
  235. to imagine a spotlight
  236. was shining on that goal,
  237. and that everything around it was blurry
  238. and perhaps difficult to see.
  239. We thought that this strategy
  240. would help make the exercise look easier.
  241. We compared this group
  242. to a baseline group.
  243. To this group we said,
  244. just look around the environment
  245. as you naturally would.
  246. You will notice the finish line,
  247. but you might also notice
  248. the garbage can off to the right,
  249. or the people and the lamp post
    off to the left.
  250. We thought that people
    who used this strategy
  251. would see the distance as farther.
  252. So what did we find?
  253. When we had them estimate the distance,
  254. was this strategy successful
  255. for changing their perceptual experience?
  256. Yes.
  257. People who kept their eyes on the prize
  258. saw the finish line as 30 percent closer
  259. than people who looked around
  260. as they naturally would.
  261. We thought this was great.
  262. We were really excited because it meant
  263. that this strategy helped make
  264. the exercise look easier,
  265. but the big question was,
  266. could this help make exercise
  267. actually better?
  268. Could it improve the quality
  269. of exercise as well?
  270. So next, we told our participants,
  271. you are going to walk to the finish line
  272. while wearing extra weight.
  273. We added weights to their ankles
  274. that amounted to 15 percent
    of their body weight.
  275. We told them to lift their knees up high
  276. and walk to the finish line quickly.
  277. We designed this exercise in particular
  278. to be moderately challenging
  279. but not impossible,
  280. like most exercises
  281. that actually improve our fitness.
  282. So the big question, then:
  283. Did keeping your eyes on the prize
  284. and narrowly focusing on the finish line
  285. change their experience of the exercise?
  286. It did.
  287. People who kept their eyes on the prize
  288. told us afterward that it required
  289. 17 percent less exertion
  290. for them to do this exercise
  291. than people who looked around naturally.
  292. It changed their subjective experience
  293. of the exercise.
  294. It also changed the objective nature
  295. of their exercise.
  296. People who kept their eyes on the prize
  297. actually moved 23 percent faster
  298. than people who looked around naturally.
  299. To put that in perspective,
  300. a 23 percent increase
  301. is like trading in
    your 1980 Chevy Citation
  302. for a 1980 Chevrolet Corvette.
  303. We were so excited by this,
  304. because this meant that a strategy
  305. that costs nothing,
  306. that is easy for people to use,
  307. regardless of whether they're in shape
  308. or struggling to get there,
  309. had a big effect.
  310. Keeping your eyes on the prize
  311. made the exercise look and feel easier
  312. even when people were working harder
  313. because they were moving faster.
  314. Now, I know there's more to good health
  315. than walking a little bit faster,
  316. but keeping your eyes on the prize
  317. might be one additional strategy
  318. that you can use to help promote
  319. a healthy lifestyle.
  320. If you're not convinced yet
  321. that we all see the world
    through our own mind's eye,
  322. let me leave you with one final example.
  323. Here's a photograph of a beautiful street
    in Stockholm, with two cars.
  324. The car in the back looks much larger
  325. than the car in the front.
  326. However, in reality,
  327. these cars are the same size,
  328. but that's not how we see it.
  329. So does this mean
  330. that our eyes have gone haywire
  331. and that our brains are a mess?
  332. No, it doesn't mean that at all.
  333. It's just how our eyes work.
  334. We might see the world in a different way,
  335. and sometimes that might not
  336. line up with reality,
  337. but it doesn't mean
    that one of us is right
  338. and one of us is wrong.
  339. We all see the world
    through our mind's eye,
  340. but we can teach ourselves
    to see it differently.
  341. So I can think of days
  342. that have gone horribly wrong for me.
  343. I'm fed up, I'm grumpy, I'm tired,
  344. and I'm so behind,
  345. and there's a big black cloud
  346. hanging over my head,
  347. and on days like these,
  348. it looks like everyone around me
  349. is down in the dumps too.
  350. My colleague at work looks annoyed
  351. when I ask for an extension on a deadline,
  352. and my friend looks frustrated
  353. when I show up late for lunch
    because a meeting ran long,
  354. and at the end of the day,
  355. my husband looks disappointed
  356. because I'd rather go to bed
    than go to the movies.
  357. And on days like these,
    when everybody looks
  358. upset and angry to me,
  359. I try to remind myself that there are
    other ways of seeing them.
  360. Perhaps my colleague was confused,
  361. perhaps my friend was concerned,
  362. and perhaps my husband
    was feeling empathy instead.
  363. So we all see the world
  364. through our own mind's eye,
  365. and on some days, it might look
  366. like the world is a dangerous
  367. and challenging and insurmountable place,
  368. but it doesn't have to look
    that way all the time.
  369. We can teach ourselves
    to see it differently,
  370. and when we find a way to make the world
  371. look nicer and easier,
  372. it might actually become so.
  373. Thank you.
  374. (Applause)