Personal Trainers Are Not So Smart #3 - Confirmation Bias

The Misconception: You find it easy to seek out all relevant information regarding a complex idea before rationally coming to a fair, well-balanced conclusion.

The Truth: You actively seek out, and cherry-pick information that supports your beliefs and easily ignore information that contradicts them.

by | September 13, 2018

In this article, I’ll show you how we all fall for the Confirmation Bias in our nutrition coaching and exercise programme design. I’ll also provide practical tips on how you can avoid falling into these intellectual traps, so you can get better results with your clients and improve your business.


In summary

  • Confirmation bias is a mental shortcut which is useful for simple everyday tasks but can cause us to develop false beliefs when it comes to more complicated ideas.
  • Confirmation bias can cause you to hold on to beliefs which aren’t true, having a negative effect on your Personal Training service and your business.
  • You need to stay curious by always asking why.
  • Think creatively to consider when an idea may or may not be true.
  • Be a healthy sceptic to determine how likely an idea is to be true.
  • Be humble enough to accept when you are wrong.


The Wason Selection Task

To illustrate how easy it is to fall victim our confirmation bias try the Wason Selection Task below:


The Wason Selection Task


Like the majority of people you likely chose E and 4 because they would confirm the theory.

Confirming the statement, however, doesn’t prove the theory is correct because neither of these cards can invalidate the theory. Flipping card 7 could prove the theory to be incorrect if it had a vowel on the other side, as this would mean that not all cards with a vowel on one side have an even number on the other side.

We are hardwired to confirm ideas and positive statements rather than disprove ideas and look for negative statements. For example, it’s easier to choose E and 4 in the example above than E and 7 and it is easier to understand the statement “All Personal Trainers Are Smart” versus “Not All Personal Trainers Are Not So Smart”.

This is considered to be “unmotivated confirmation bias”, that is, there is no incentive for you to get it wrong, you are just hardwired that way.

“Motivated confirmation bias”, on the other hand, is when you actively look for evidence that supports your existing beliefs and is more powerful. 

So as you can see, evaluating ideas (especially when it is complicated or unclear) requires a great deal of mental energy, which makes it impossible to do all day every day.

The good news is that these mental shortcuts (also known as heuristics) are great for day to day tasks such as shall I wear blue or red to the gym, and if we didn’t have this short-cut, it would make our lives much harder. In fact, Aboulomania syndrome is a brain mental disorder where patients find it extremely hard to make any decisions as they over-analyse every decision.

One of the biggest problems with the world today is that we have large groups of people who will accept whatever they hear on the grapevine, just because it suits their worldview—not because it is true or because they have evidence to support it. The striking thing is that it would not take much effort to establish validity in most of these cases… but people prefer reassurance to research.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Case Building PTs Versus Unbiased Analysis PTs

The most obvious example of case building and the motivated type of confirmation bias is seen in court between attorneys in court. Their main concern is winning the argument and so they will only present evidence that supports their case and will try to discredit any evidence that goes against their case. In this environment case building is acceptable to behave in this way.

Unfortunately, we see more and more Personal Trainers using this type of thinking when trying to defend certain ideas. These individuals are not interested in learning but rather protecting their current belief systems, and they often get very emotionally in doing so. A good way to spot case building is when you get two trainers passionately arguing a topic with polar opposite views. They can’t both be correct, and if they can’t acknowledge the other person’s perspective, then they are not using an unbiased analysis.

If you’re interested in learning and fulfilling your potential as a Personal Trainer, then be wary of using case building and instead use unbiased analysis and seek out other trainers who also use unbiased analysis.

Social media is a great example of an unconscious case building where you create an echo chamber, motivated by your confirmation bias. You like posts you agree with and ignore the ones you do not and then Facebook will send you similar content in the form of persuasive advertising.


What you need to do

To avoid this bias you need to remain curious about all possible explanations by asking why, why, why. This involves investing time looking for evidence that conflicts with your beliefs and ideas.

Think creatively about the idea. Can you imagine a scenario when it is true and when it isn’t true? Perhaps an idea works with some people and not others.

A healthy sceptic is someone who has the right balance between being too open-minded and gullible and being too sceptical where you deny what the latest evidence suggests. It’s a process of weighing up what is most likely to be true.

You must open to the prospect of being wrong and have the humility to accept when you are.

These are the thinking habits upon which Science is based. It is the self-correcting tool which makes Science work. 

Failing to use unbiased analysis/critical reasoning can lead to serious misjudgements in both your professional and personal life. The bad news is, this takes mental effort.

The good news is it’s a teachable skill which gets better with practice.

Just like the bottom of a squat, it’s effortful and uncomfortable, but once you’ve practised for a while, your body adapts via bioplasticity as you get stronger. You then realise the benefits it has on your quality of life, and you continue getting stronger.

Critical thinking is like strength training for the brain. It’s often uncomfortable (known as cognitive dissonance), but like squats, with practice, you can get mentally stronger as your brain adapts via neuroplasticity.


All truths — even those that had seemed so certain as to be immune to the very possibility of revision — are essentially manufactured. Indeed, the very notion of the objectively true is a socially constructed myth.

Our knowing minds are not embedded in truth. Rather, the entire notion of truth is embedded in our minds, which are themselves the unwitting lackeys of organizational forms of influence.

Rebecca Goldstein (author of “Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel