Monday, February 11, 2013

The psychology of life and other ultra endurance events

One of the most interesting books I read last year was Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This is quite an epic work. In the world of non-fiction literature, reading TFAS surely is an achievement equal to, say, finishing UTMB.

Thinking affects everything in our lives. Just like drivers, 90% of thinkers believe they are better than average. Here is a simple illustrative puzzle I picked up from the book: A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? A number will easily come to your mind. If your answer is 10 cents, that's the most intuitive answer. It's also the wrong answer. (The correct answer can be found under the video below.)

Kahneman suggests our mind is like a psychodrama with two fictional characters: System 1 and System 2. The former is our fast-thinking experiencing self, continuously generating intuitions, and feelings. The latter is our slow-thinking remembering self, who we often think we are. Although the confident System 2 believes to be in control, the automatic System 1 is the secret agent making the preliminary choices for us. You may not be aware that you are fond of something only because it unconsciously reminds you of something dear.
"Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me."
Our fast side is also a machine for jumping to conclusions. As marketers know, if something repeatedly draws our attention, we are more likely to accept it. Then it's the job of our rational mind to come up with sufficient reasons for doing what we have already decided to do.

Following in the footsteps of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Kahneman shows how we constantly fool ourselves, possibly never really figuring out what's going on. It's almost like watching a live documentary about your life, starring yourself, while the unconscious director in your mind is busy setting up the next scene of the show.

Creating this narrative requires energy. Our nervous system consumes vast quantities of glucose. We are hard wired to find the least demanding course of action. In the economy of daily living, effort is a cost we are trying to cut down.
"Laziness is built deep into our nature."
Trying to fight this natural tendency will only lead to 'ego-depletion', a state where people succumb more easily to the urge to stop or at least slow down. Quitting is usually due to a loss of motivation, which may happen way before any real physical exhaustion. The problem is that to keep going requires self-control, and the exertion of self-control depletes you even more. This is good to keep in mind in case you find yourself thinking about a DNF in your next race.

Our choices are rarely rational. In scientific tests people have been exposed to two unpleasant experiences. Both involve similar max pain levels at the worst moment. One of these is much longer and thus involves considerably greater amount of total pain, but it ends gradually. The other one is short with way lower amounts of total pain, but it ends abruptly in the middle of quite intense pain.
When these people later chose which episode to repeat, they picked up the longer event. The duration of the procedure had no effect whatsoever on the ratings of total pain.
"We believe that duration is important, but our memory tells us it is not." 
Also lowering the peak intensity of the pain would seem more attractive than minimizing the duration.
This may explain the growing popularity of ultra endurance events, which often have a relaxed atmosphere, pleasant surroundings and sufficiently generous time limits for even us amateur athletes to finish.

You'll surely remember this book the next time you're running around Mont Blanc, possibly suffering most of the weekend - and probably occasionally contemplating what the heck are you doing there. Why on earth did you decide to do it, and what were the benefits again? Maybe you were just another victim of the planning fallacy: our forecasts tend to be unrealistically close to best-case scenarios.
"The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future."
Here's an interesting thought experiment from the book. It's about a vacation, but it could be also applied to your next ultra endurance event. Let's suppose your trip would be very successful and enjoyable, but at the end all material evidence like photos, results and souvenirs will be destroyed and all memories of it ever happening will be totally wiped out. Now how would this affect your plans, relative to a normally memorable experience?

Many people will say they would not bother to go at all, revealing that they truly care a lot more about their remembering self and than about their experiencing self. Many say there's no way they would send themselves to climb mountains or trek through the jungle under those circumstances. These experiences seem to gain value mostly from the expectation that the whole experience and especially the joy of reaching the goal will be presentable and memorable.
"Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance."
Life is a challenging ultra endurance event with many traps. There is the trap of confusing experience and memory. Happiness is a complex concept: are you happy in your life or about your life? There is the danger of thinking about future as anticipated memories. Your best bet is probably Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's famous flow, the 'time flies' state you may experience during a challenging trail run for instance.

Finishing your next race may not bring you any long-lasting happiness. Even PR's may not be that important. People like to adopt lifetime goals like running a 3-hour marathon that they strive to achieve, but not necessarily to exceed. They are likely to reduce their efforts when they have reached goal. The aversion to the failure of not reaching the goal is much stronger than the desire to exceed it.

People who appear equally fortunate vary greatly in how happy they are. The same situation may be good for some people and bad for others. For example climate is not scientifically an important determinant of well-being. According to Kahneman, the Scandinavian countries are probably the happiest in the world, although the amount of sunshine in Northern Europe is minimal. This is the focusing illusion: nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it. As soon as you get something you dream about, you stop focusing on it and start taking it for granted.

Knowing this won't stop us dreaming about living in a better climate. However whether or not the individual is actually happier after the move to the sunnier area, he will report himself happier. When asked about it, the person's thoughts will focus on the nice climate and he'll truly believe for a moment that it's making him feel much better. In reality things may be otherwise. If we are wrong about our present state of well-being, we certainly are as clueless about the happiness of others, or about our future.

The new word miswanting appropriately describes bad choices that arise from our errors of affective forecasting. We are so prone to exaggerate the effect of changed circumstances (significant purchases etc) on our happiness, that this 'miswanting' has almost become our new lifestyle. However goals can really make a large difference. If you have seriously set yourself the goal of running around Mont Blanc, then that's an important project for you. Our concept of well-being should include both what we want to achieve in life and how satisfied we feel in the present.     
"We must accept the complexities of a hybrid view, in which the well-being of both selves is considered." 
Here's one of the best Kahneman videos: 'The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory'. Perhaps something for your System 2 to think about while your System 1 enjoys a long run?


The correct answer for the problem above is 5 cents. Since "endings are very important" I'll finish with another favorite quote from the book. There is a lot more good stuff in there to be discovered, so buy it fast and absorb it slowly. It might change the way you think about your life.
"If you were allowed one wish for your child, seriously consider wishing him or her optimism."


Will said...

great review! I need a good read for my long runs..I'll have to get this on Audible. Are you doing UTMB? I'm in for Vermont 100 and Leadville 100 with 10,000 feet of altitude!

Trail Plodder said...

Thanks Will! Antifragile by Taleb is perhaps more entertaining for your long runs - I'm reading it now and it is a very good book.

I lost in UTMB '13 lottery and didn't choose to take TDS '13 instead, so now I'll get double chances in UTMB '14 lottery. If I could find a sponsor to donate 2000 euros to a charity by June, I could get a charity bib for UTMB '13. But that's not likely to happen in current economic situation.

Leadville is legendary, I've dreamed of running that myself. Their lowest point (9200ft) is higher than the highest point of UTMB (8323ft). And Hope Pass is 3840 meters!

Vermont is too easy for you, but probably useful as a training run for Leadville. I'll do the Eiger Ultra Trail 101K in Switzerland the same weekend, a new one.