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How to Get People to Make the Right Fitness Choice – The Cognitive Biases at Play

Physical fitness starts with the decision to get fit. Understand how cognitive biases that come into play during the decision-making process and learn how to influence others, your clients in particular!

Busy week? Take a moment to reflect. What do you remember? Visualise conversations, training sessions or content that just sticks out. Do you recall every specific detail?

As humans, we can’t compute everything. Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you don’t is exhausting. Our smartphones have become more advanced than computers from just a few decades ago. We cram information gathering into every spare moment. Shopping, exercising, listening, scrolling – we can do it all at once. Attention spans are down, accessibility is up.

Our brain uses a few simple tricks – quirks of the mind – to retain the information we think we need the most and filter the rest out.

You want people to know that you’re the best trainer. You want them to understand that your exercise protocol is built around science. You sell the benefits – for instance, that workouts can take as little as 20 minutes – so why isn’t every person in need of a trainer lining up?

Influencing your clients is like strengthening your muscles. The more you know, the better the results.

When people make decisions, these biases kick-in. Source: Business Insider.


Quirks of the mind

Richard Thaler, one of the founding fathers of ‘nudge theory’ – a way to influence people to alter their behaviour – won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2017. He was celebrated for helping shape the way we think about human behaviour. You only need to read the book he penned with Cass R Sunstein, Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness, to see why.

Our brains quickly construct meaning from fragments of information to avoid drowning in information. This is known as the availability heuristic. For example, what’s worth worrying about; death by shark attack or falling aeroplane parts? Thanks to Hollywood films, you’re more likely to worry about killer Jaws. Yet, in the US, you’re 30 times more likely to be hit by a part of a plane than lose a limb to a shark.

Context matters. We assess the likelihood of risks by asking how readily examples come to mind. Something scarily familiar, like terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, will get more attention than, say, a hurricane if you live in the UK.

Being able to focus on useful information saves us time and energy. There are, however, downsides.

  • Our brains work fast and we don’t see everything. We miss out on important and useful information every day
  • Our assumptions fill in the blanks. We give meaning to stories that are at best illusions
  • Our first instinct can be flawed. We often succumb to counter-productive biases when we go with our first and fast gut reaction
  • Our memory can embed layers of errors. We can remember the right things in the wrong way, which reinforces skewed thinking.

So that’s the bad news, and even though we know about human biases, we can’t change the way we operate. The good news? When you understand that quirks of the brain exist, you can work out how to compensate for them. That’s nudge theory.


Information overload: the risks

A recent study in Nature Human Behaviour explores what happens when drug firms list each and every tiny side-effect of a medication. (In the US, it’s the advice of the Food and Drug Administration to do so in direct-to-consumer ads.)

When commercials group severe side effects (risk of cancer) with lots of trivial ones (dry mouth), people find drugs more appealing. Counterintuitively, customers are even willing to buy the drugs at a higher price. Instead of each warning adding to someone’s cumulative sense of being at risk, the opposite is true.

Why? Important information gets lost in translation. Weaker points dilute the entire argument. This is known as the dilution effect.

Too much information > not enough meaning > need to act fast > what should I remember? A more detailed view of cognitive biases in decision-making. Source: Designhacks.co


Another study finds that people are more likely to reject goals thanks to dilution. Take exercise. Would you be more convinced to do exercise if it was to protect yourself against heart disease or maintain healthy bones? Choosing the combination of heart and bones seems, rationally speaking, like a pretty strong motivator. Yet, results show that having two reasons to do something feels a bit like overstating the benefits. People who set one goal are more likely to choose to work towards just that.

The authors of Nudge share a mininudge example – a prompter to influence people to make the right choice – called stickK. It’s a commitment platform to help people achieve their goals. There are two ways to make pledges depending on what makes you tick: financial or non-financial.

Here’s how the financial commitments can work for, say, your client. They can vow to do HIT workouts every Monday and Thursday over a set period. If they reach their goal, they get their pledged money back. If they fail, the money they have put up goes to charity. There are also options to pool cash with other hopeful achievers. With non-financial commitments, they can rely on peer-to-peer pressure – emailing friends and family or blogging about successes and failures. The more tailored the goal, the better. For example, StickK platform users have vowed to learn to juggle (with seven oranges and a watermelon, to be specific) and climb Mount Kilimanjaro (while there’s still ice at the summit).

Helping people to shape their own goals is a powerful reminder that goals are a choice. Around half of us fail to stick to our New Year resolutions beyond six months. In fact, 25% of us give up by the end of the first week. Why? In part, because of the what the hell effect. When we set limits, we’re more likely to overindulge. Take a client who hasn’t found the time to work out as frequently as they initially committed to. Disappointment can pile up until there’s nothing left for them to say than, “Oh, what the hell!”


Top influencing tips

Putting choices across in a way that highlights what you want the other party to see is called framing. Your clients can’t afford to think deeply about every choice they have to make. So, as a trainer, it’s your job to make exercise an easy choice.

Humans are fallible, which means your clients are nudgeable. Based on the theory I’ve touched on, here are some tactics to try out.


Your clients can’t afford to think deeply about every choice they have to make.
1. Get to know your client

The availability heuristic means people care about what’s easy and obvious to them. If you don’t know what’s front of your clients’ minds, you can’t tailor your message

2. Be brutal with your list of benefits

Think carefully about your USP and stick with that. Don’t list all the benefits of using your services without taking a breath. Each weak argument detracts from the strongest until you’re left with a mediocre proposition

3. Nudge with one big goal

Over-claiming can be unimpressive. Help your client by nailing one meaty goal for them to work towards

4. Set realistic goals

Difficult-to-keep aims can lead to an outbreak of the what the hell effect. Achieving goals is daily work. Help your clients to set resolutions they intend to keep.

One thing every fitness trainer holds true is that exercise involves the body and the mind. So, be bold and get to know the grey matter between your eyes. Use quirks of the mind to begin thinking about your business in new ways. Good luck!


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