Imagine, if you don’t mind, that one day you are walking down your local high street (or any high street, it really doesn’t matter) when you see the British distance runner Mo Farah coming the other way. Your mind is cast back to the fourth of August 2012, a day which came to be known as “Super Saturday”, when Mo Farah had you leaping from your armchair in delight as he stormed to victory in the 10,000 metres.
You feel the urge to buy a small gift for Mo Farah to thank him. You happen to be outside a branch of Dunkin’ Donuts, so you pop in and purchase a Limited Edition Brownie Batter Donut with heart sprinkles. You leave the shop, approach Mo Farah, express your appreciation and offer him the delicious fried dough confection.
Of course, Mo Farah is a world class athlete and therefore adheres to a strict diet of pasta, steamed vegetables and grilled chicken. However, he can see that you are sincere and doesn’t wish to offend you so, just this once, he decides to eat the donut. You exchange pleasantries for a few moments longer and then say your goodbyes.
A short while later, Mo Farah starts to feel thirsty. He enters a branch of John Menzies to buy himself a drink. Mo typically only drinks one of three things:
- His training team’s specially formulated isotonic protein-based concoctions
- A glass of milk before bedtime on Sundays
A bottle of water, then, would be his usual choice when buying a drink from a shop. On this occasion, however, he remembers that he has just eaten a donut and decides that perhaps he doesn’t always have to be perfect. He thinks, “What the hey, let’s live a little”, and buys himself a can of diet lemonade.
The next morning, Mo wakes up to find himself lying sprawled on his sofa, melted chocolate smeared all around his mouth, ketchup and mustard stains on his threadbare vest and underpants, and empty takeaway cartons and beer cans strewn all over the floor.
And so begins the rapid and humiliating decline of the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic Games history.
All because you bought him a donut.
What in the name of Larry Grayson happened here?
A sense of identity
There are many factors which influence the choices we make, and one of the key factors is our sense of identity. Here’s how it works.
When deciding on a particular course of action, our basic subconscious mind takes a look at whether or not the action feels like something we would naturally do.
If it finds a natural alignment between the action and our sense of identity, then it decides to go ahead with that action, because there is no internal mental conflict.
If, on the other hand, that alignment between action and identity is not there, then it decides against it. “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that”, it might say, if it were Meatloaf.
Now, we may think that our sense of identity is pretty much set in stone but, as psychologists have discovered, it can actually be manipulated quite easily.
To find out how, let’s go back to 1974, the year I was conceived (not relevant).
Donations in Toronto
A team of psychologists in Toronto conducted a study in two parts. In the first part, they went door-to-door round a set of houses, asking for donations to a charity. They found that 46% of residents agreed to give money.
In the second part of the study, they went round another set of houses, but this time they only asked the residents to wear a small lapel pin to publicise their charity. It wasn’t a big ask, and almost all agreed to do so.
Two weeks later, they returned to the second set of houses and asked for a donation to the charity. Incredibly, over 90% of these residents agreed to give money.
Why such a huge difference? By agreeing to wear the lapel pin, the second group’s sense of identity had made a small but significant shift. They began to see themselves as supporters of the charity so, when asked for a donation, they were far more likely to agree.
The consistency principle
This is known as the consistency principle, which describes our tendency to behave consistently with the things we have previously said or done. When we do or say something, our subsequent behaviours become more likely to match up, because of the small change in our sense of identity.
So when Mo Farah ate the donut you bought him, it subtly changed the image he had of himself. When he then went to purchase a drink, his choice of beverage (a diet lemonade, in case you’ve forgotten already) was in alignment with his new self-image.
Psychologists have found plenty of other examples of this.
When a group of homeowners in California were asked to display a large “Drive Safely” sign in their front gardens, very few agreed to do so.
However, in a similar neighbourhood nearby, four times as many homeowners agreed to display the sign. The only difference was that ten days earlier, these homeowners had agreed to place a small postcard in the front window of their house showing their support for a Drive Safely campaign.
According to the researchers carrying out the study, when someone displayed the postcard, he became “in his own eyes, the kind of person who does this sort of thing, who takes action on things he believes in, who cooperates with good causes.” They then complied with the larger request to be consistent with their newly formed self-image.
Then there was a study done on smokers.
A group of 80 smokers were put into pairs. In each pair, one person took the role of “Persuader” and was told to present anti-smoking arguments, while the other person took the role of “Observer” and was told to just listen.
At the end of the study, the Persuaders’ attitudes to smoking had changed significantly, while the Observers’ attitudes had not.
Again, you can see what happened here – the Persuaders’ action of presenting the anti-smoking arguments led to a change in their self-image. The Observers, despite hearing the same arguments, did not go through this process.
But the consistency principle goes even further. Psychologists have identified a phenomenon called the mere measurement effect where simply measuring intentions can change subsequent behaviour.
That is, when people are asked what they intend to do, they become more likely to act in accordance with their answers. This has been demonstrated over and over again in areas as diverse as voting behaviour, purchasing behaviour and health-related behaviour
For example, as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein describe in their book Nudge: “If people are asked how often they expect to floss their teeth in the next week, they floss more. If people are asked whether they intend to consume fatty foods in the next week, they consume less in the way of fatty foods.”
Identity and exercise
I hope you’ll agree that this is all fairly astonishing stuff. But how does it apply to exercise?
First of all, it points to the overwhelming usefulness and importance of having a good exercise plan (what makes a good exercise plan? I’ll be covering that in a future post – put your email address in the box below to be kept updated).
Simply by putting together an exercise plan, you are setting off the mere measurement effect. You’re stating what you intend to do, and as a result you’ll become more likely to act accordingly. Your self-image has started to shift and you begin to see yourself as the kind of person who exercises.
But you can take this beyond the effects of mere measurement, with your small actions and behaviours. This is particularly effective in the build up to an exercise session. By doing simple things like laying out your workout gear in advance, your self-image starts to change to someone who is going to carry out that exercise session.
On the flipside, in order to get away from your self-image of “someone who doesn’t exercise”, it will help to start breaking some of the small bad habits which reinforce this image (like eating donuts Mo).
Ultimately, it’s about changing the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and the best way to do this isn’t to give yourself a good talking to – it’s about the small actions that you take. There’s a lot to be said for faking it till you make it.