14:09
TEDxNewYork

Emily Balcetis: Why some people find exercise harder than others

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Why do some people struggle more than others to keep off the pounds? Social psychologist Emily Balcetis shows research that addresses one of the many factors: Vision. In an informative talk, she shows how when it comes to fitness, some people quite literally see the world differently from others -- and offers a surprisingly simple solution to overcome these differences.

- Psychologist
Social psychologist Emily Balcetis explores perception, motivation, goal-setting and decision-making from conscious and nonconscious levels. Full bio

Vision is the most important
00:12
and prioritized sense that we have.
00:15
We are constantly looking
00:17
at the world around us,
00:19
and quickly we identify and make sense
00:21
of what it is that we see.
00:23
Let's just start with an example
00:25
of that very fact.
00:27
I'm going to show you
a photograph of a person,
00:28
just for a second or two,
00:30
and I'd like for you to identify
00:32
what emotion is on his face.
00:34
Ready?
00:36
Here you go. Go with your gut reaction.
00:37
Okay. What did you see?
00:40
Well, we actually surveyed
00:42
over 120 individuals,
00:45
and the results were mixed.
00:47
People did not agree
00:49
on what emotion they saw on his face.
00:51
Maybe you saw discomfort.
00:54
That was the most frequent response
00:56
that we received.
00:58
But if you asked the person on your left,
00:59
they might have said regret or skepticism,
01:01
and if you asked somebody on your right,
01:04
they might have said
something entirely different,
01:06
like hope or empathy.
01:09
So we are all looking
01:12
at the very same face again.
01:13
We might see something
01:16
entirely different,
01:18
because perception is subjective.
01:20
What we think we see
01:23
is actually filtered
01:25
through our own mind's eye.
01:27
Of course, there are many other examples
01:29
of how we see the world
through own mind's eye.
01:31
I'm going to give you just a few.
01:34
So dieters, for instance,
01:36
see apples as larger
01:38
than people who are not counting calories.
01:40
Softball players see the ball as smaller
01:43
if they've just come out of a slump,
01:47
compared to people who
had a hot night at the plate.
01:49
And actually, our political beliefs also
01:53
can affect the way we see other people,
01:56
including politicians.
01:58
So my research team and I
decided to test this question.
02:00
In 2008, Barack Obama
was running for president
02:04
for the very first time,
02:07
and we surveyed hundreds of Americans
02:09
one month before the election.
02:12
What we found in this survey
02:14
was that some people, some Americans,
02:16
think photographs like these
02:18
best reflect how Obama really looks.
02:20
Of these people, 75 percent
02:23
voted for Obama in the actual election.
02:25
Other people, though,
thought photographs like these
02:28
best reflect how Obama really looks.
02:31
89 percent of these people
02:34
voted for McCain.
02:36
We presented many photographs of Obama
02:37
one at a time,
02:41
so people did not realize
that what we were changing
02:42
from one photograph to the next
02:45
was whether we had artificially lightened
02:47
or darkened his skin tone.
02:49
So how is that possible?
02:52
How could it be that
when I look at a person,
02:53
an object, or an event,
02:56
I see something very different
02:58
than somebody else does?
03:00
Well, the reasons are many,
03:02
but one reason requires that we understand
03:04
a little bit more about how our eyes work.
03:06
So vision scientists know
03:09
that the amount of information
03:11
that we can see
03:12
at any given point in time,
03:14
what we can focus on,
is actually relatively small.
03:16
What we can see with great sharpness
03:19
and clarity and accuracy
03:21
is the equivalent
03:24
of the surface area of our thumb
03:26
on our outstretched arm.
03:28
Everything else around that is blurry,
03:30
rendering much of what is presented
03:32
to our eyes as ambiguous.
03:35
But we have to clarify
03:37
and make sense of what it is that we see,
03:40
and it's our mind that
helps us fill in that gap.
03:42
As a result, perception
is a subjective experience,
03:45
and that's how we end up seeing
03:49
through our own mind's eye.
03:50
So, I'm a social psychologist,
03:53
and it's questions like these
03:54
that really intrigue me.
03:56
I am fascinated by those times
03:58
when people do not see eye to eye.
03:59
Why is it that somebody might
04:02
literally see the glass as half full,
04:03
and somebody literally sees it
04:06
as half empty?
04:07
What is it about what one person
is thinking and feeling
04:09
that leads them to see the world
04:12
in an entirely different way?
04:14
And does that even matter?
04:16
So to begin to tackle these questions,
04:18
my research team and I
decided to delve deeply
04:21
into an issue that has received
04:24
international attention:
04:26
our health and fitness.
04:28
Across the world,
04:30
people are struggling
to manage their weight,
04:31
and there is a variety of strategies
04:33
that we have to help us
keep the pounds off.
04:36
For instance, we set
the best of intentions
04:39
to exercise after the holidays,
04:42
but actually, the majority of Americans
04:45
find that their New Year's resolutions
04:47
are broken by Valentine's Day.
04:49
We talk to ourselves
04:52
in very encouraging ways,
04:54
telling ourselves this is our year
04:56
to get back into shape,
04:57
but that is not enough to bring us back
04:59
to our ideal weight.
05:01
So why?
05:03
Of course, there is no simple answer,
05:05
but one reason, I argue,
05:07
is that our mind's eye
05:09
might work against us.
05:11
Some people may literally see exercise
05:13
as more difficult,
05:16
and some people might literally
05:18
see exercise as easier.
05:19
So, as a first step
to testing these questions,
05:22
we gathered objective measurements
05:26
of individuals' physical fitness.
05:28
We measured the
circumference of their waist,
05:31
compared to the
circumference of their hips.
05:33
A higher waist-to-hip ratio
05:36
is an indicator of being
less physically fit
05:38
than a lower waist-to-hip ratio.
05:40
After gathering these measurements,
05:42
we told our participants that
05:44
they would walk to a finish line
05:46
while carrying extra weight
05:48
in a sort of race.
05:49
But before they did that,
05:51
we asked them to estimate the distance
05:52
to the finish line.
05:55
We thought that the physical
states of their body
05:57
might change how
they perceived the distance.
05:59
So what did we find?
06:02
Well, waist-to-hip ratio
06:04
predicted perceptions of distance.
06:07
People who were out of shape and unfit
06:10
actually saw the distance
to the finish line
06:12
as significantly greater
06:15
than people who were in better shape.
06:16
People's states of their own body
06:18
changed how they
perceived the environment.
06:20
But so too can our mind.
06:23
In fact, our bodies and our minds
06:25
work in tandem
06:27
to change how we see the world around us.
06:29
That led us to think that maybe people
06:31
with strong motivations
06:34
and strong goals to exercise
06:35
might actually see
the finish line as closer
06:37
than people who have weaker motivations.
06:40
So to test whether motivations
06:44
affect our perceptual
experiences in this way,
06:46
we conducted a second study.
06:49
Again, we gathered objective measurements
06:51
of people's physical fitness,
06:54
measuring the circumference of their waist
06:56
and the circumference of their hips,
06:58
and we had them do a
few other tests of fitness.
07:00
Based on feedback that we gave them,
07:03
some of our participants told us
07:06
they're not motivated
to exercise any more.
07:07
They felt like they already
met their fitness goals
07:09
and they weren't going
to do anything else.
07:12
These people were not motivated.
07:14
Other people, though,
based on our feedback,
07:16
told us they were highly
motivated to exercise.
07:18
They had a strong goal
to make it to the finish line.
07:20
But again, before we had them
walk to the finish line,
07:23
we had them estimate the distance.
07:26
How far away was the finish line?
07:28
And again, like the previous study,
07:29
we found that waist-to-hip ratio
07:32
predicted perceptions of distance.
07:34
Unfit individuals saw
the distance as farther,
07:36
saw the finish line as farther away,
07:40
than people who were in better shape.
07:42
Importantly, though, this only happened
07:44
for people who were not motivated
07:46
to exercise.
07:48
On the other hand,
07:50
people who were highly
motivated to exercise
07:51
saw the distance as short.
07:54
Even the most out of shape individuals
07:57
saw the finish line
07:59
as just as close,
08:00
if not slightly closer,
08:02
than people who were in better shape.
08:04
So our bodies can change
08:06
how far away that finish line looks,
08:08
but people who had committed
to a manageable goal
08:11
that they could accomplish
in the near future
08:15
and who believed that they were capable
08:17
of meeting that goal
08:19
actually saw the exercise as easier.
08:20
That led us to wonder,
08:24
is there a strategy that we could use
08:26
and teach people that would help
08:28
change their perceptions of the distance,
08:31
help them make exercise look easier?
08:33
So we turned to
the vision science literature
08:35
to figure out what should we do,
08:38
and based on what we read,
we came up with a strategy
08:40
that we called, "Keep
your eyes on the prize."
08:42
So this is not the slogan
08:46
from an inspirational poster.
08:47
It's an actual directive
08:49
for how to look around your environment.
08:52
People that we trained in this strategy,
08:54
we told them to focus
their attention on the finish line,
08:57
to avoid looking around,
09:01
to imagine a spotlight
09:02
was shining on that goal,
09:04
and that everything around it was blurry
09:05
and perhaps difficult to see.
09:08
We thought that this strategy
09:10
would help make the exercise look easier.
09:12
We compared this group
09:14
to a baseline group.
09:16
To this group we said,
09:18
just look around the environment
09:19
as you naturally would.
09:20
You will notice the finish line,
09:22
but you might also notice
09:23
the garbage can off to the right,
09:25
or the people and the
lamp post off to the left.
09:27
We thought that people
who used this strategy
09:29
would see the distance as farther.
09:32
So what did we find?
09:34
When we had them estimate the distance,
09:36
was this strategy successful
09:38
for changing their perceptual experience?
09:40
Yes.
09:43
People who kept their eyes on the prize
09:44
saw the finish line as 30 percent closer
09:46
than people who looked around
09:49
as they naturally would.
09:51
We thought this was great.
09:52
We were really excited because it meant
09:53
that this strategy helped make
09:55
the exercise look easier,
09:57
but the big question was,
09:58
could this help make exercise
10:00
actually better?
10:02
Could it improve the quality
10:04
of exercise as well?
10:05
So next, we told our participants,
10:07
you are going to walk to the finish line
10:09
while wearing extra weight.
10:11
We added weights to their ankles
10:14
that amounted to 15 percent
of their body weight.
10:16
We told them to lift their knees up high
10:18
and walk to the finish line quickly.
10:20
We designed this exercise in particular
10:22
to be moderately challenging
10:25
but not impossible,
10:26
like most exercises
10:28
that actually improve our fitness.
10:29
So the big question, then:
10:32
Did keeping your eyes on the prize
10:35
and narrowly focusing on the finish line
10:37
change their experience of the exercise?
10:39
It did.
10:42
People who kept their eyes on the prize
10:44
told us afterward that it required
10:46
17 percent less exertion
10:48
for them to do this exercise
10:50
than people who looked around naturally.
10:51
It changed their subjective experience
10:55
of the exercise.
10:57
It also changed the objective nature
10:59
of their exercise.
11:02
People who kept their eyes on the prize
11:03
actually moved 23 percent faster
11:05
than people who looked around naturally.
11:08
To put that in perspective,
11:11
a 23 percent increase
11:13
is like trading in your
1980 Chevy Citation
11:15
for a 1980 Chevrolet Corvette.
11:18
We were so excited by this,
11:23
because this meant that a strategy
11:26
that costs nothing,
11:28
that is easy for people to use,
11:29
regardless of whether they're in shape
11:31
or struggling to get there,
11:33
had a big effect.
11:35
Keeping your eyes on the prize
11:37
made the exercise look and feel easier
11:38
even when people were working harder
11:41
because they were moving faster.
11:44
Now, I know there's more to good health
11:46
than walking a little bit faster,
11:49
but keeping your eyes on the prize
11:51
might be one additional strategy
11:53
that you can use to help promote
11:55
a healthy lifestyle.
11:56
If you're not convinced yet
11:59
that we all see the world
through our own mind's eye,
12:01
let me leave you with one final example.
12:03
Here's a photograph of a beautiful
street in Stockholm, with two cars.
12:05
The car in the back looks much larger
12:09
than the car in the front.
12:11
However, in reality,
12:12
these cars are the same size,
12:14
but that's not how we see it.
12:16
So does this mean that
12:19
our eyes have gone haywire
12:21
and that our brains are a mess?
12:23
No, it doesn't mean that at all.
12:25
It's just how our eyes work.
12:28
We might see the world in a different way,
12:30
and sometimes that might not
12:33
line up with reality,
12:35
but it doesn't mean
that one of us is right
12:37
and one of us is wrong.
12:39
We all see the world
through our mind's eye,
12:41
but we can teach ourselves
to see it differently.
12:43
So I can think of days
12:46
that have gone horribly wrong for me.
12:48
I'm fed up, I'm grumpy, I'm tired,
12:50
and I'm so behind,
12:52
and there's a big black cloud
12:54
hanging over my head,
12:56
and on days like these,
12:57
it looks like everyone around me
12:59
is down in the dumps too.
13:01
My colleague at work looks annoyed
13:03
when I ask for an extension on a deadline,
13:05
and my friend looks frustrated
13:07
when I show up late for lunch
because a meeting ran long,
13:09
and at the end of the day,
13:12
my husband looks disappointed
13:14
because I'd rather go to
bed than go to the movies.
13:16
And on days like these,
when everybody looks
13:18
upset and angry to me,
13:21
I try to remind myself that there
are other ways of seeing them.
13:23
Perhaps my colleague was confused,
13:26
perhaps my friend was concerned,
13:30
and perhaps my husband was
feeling empathy instead.
13:32
So we all see the world
13:35
through our own mind's eye,
13:37
and on some days, it might look
13:39
like the world is a dangerous
13:41
and challenging and insurmountable place,
13:43
but it doesn't have to look
that way all the time.
13:45
We can teach ourselves
to see it differently,
13:48
and when we find a way to make the world
13:50
look nicer and easier,
13:53
it might actually become so.
13:55
Thank you.
13:57
(Applause)
13:59

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About the Speaker:

Emily Balcetis - Psychologist
Social psychologist Emily Balcetis explores perception, motivation, goal-setting and decision-making from conscious and nonconscious levels.

Why you should listen

The world around us often seems insurmountable, with all the cards stacked against us -- but as social psychologist Emily Balcetis seeks to show, it doesn't have to be that way. Through her research at New York University she explores how small differences in perception, whether conscious or nonconscious, can have potentially major consequences. For example, in a series of studies conducted in 2009 Balcetis helped show that people who saw Barack Obama as lighter skinned tended to report voting for him in the 2008 presidential election -- and vice versa.

Her current work focuses on how video evidence can bias jury members differently and how our vision can work against us when it comes to effective exercise. Balcetis' goal is to show that through our awareness of these biases, we can also overcome them, for an ever so slightly less daunting world.

More profile about the speaker
Emily Balcetis | Speaker | TED.com