I’m fascinated by the inner workings of the mind and how we make decisions. As whether it’s in running or life, the decisions we make end up defining who we are and where we are going.

I also love self-experimentation. Life can be thought of as a running a million little self experiments and seeing what the outcome is. It makes life way more enjoyable, and perhaps provides a nice coping mechanism for failure, when you look at new opportunities and chances as experiments. It frames the question as not of success/failure, but instead ‘does this work’ or ‘what happens if…’  When we do that, what we’ve created is a situation where even if the results don’t go your way, you still learn from them.

So if you followed me around, this love of experimentation would be why on any given day I might simply change my dress from my standard running bum wardrobe to that of khaki wearing professional to see reactions (understand how norms shape expectations) or how I’ll talk to some random person at a coffee shop to test out some sort of psychological/cognitive quirk or bias I learned about (hello, awkwardness…) and on and on. My favorite are those which put me in a slightly awkward and uncomfortable situation to see how I react, and to almost desensitize myself to uncomfortableness, so that the next time I have to do something I’m naturally not inclined to do, I’m okay with it. And that’s why I get along well with my good friend, Phoebe Wright. She’s an experimenter and thinker.

So when Phoebe texted me about her exploration into decision making during her tests I was beyond excited. Phoebe and I tend to think along similar lines, both having a love for mapping out concepts with flow charts and believing that “smarts” are simply an ability to see, recognize, and use patterns. So when Phoebe reaches out, it’s usually because it’s something pretty interesting and different.

Entering her class for her Pharmacy program, she had relayed the story of that one kid in class who finishes every test first at a ridiculous speed. We’d debated whether he actually finishes it this fast or if he just has some complex about showing his intelligence by finishing that fast. Intrigued by which it was and determined to “beat” him, she decided the next test to attempt to finish the test before him.

On her next test, she blazed through the 35 question test without even fully reading all of the words in the question. It was all about speed with hoping to get the answer right without giving it any deep thought. She made all the way to question 34 when Mr. speedy test taker looked like he was done and turning the test in. Resisting the temptation to be a perfectionist and double check her answers, she made the probably irrational decision when it comes to grades, but the fantastic decision from an intrigue viewpoint, and turn in her test.

As she put it, “I decided to turn the test in without double checking. I wanted to see the difference in grades between going slow versus relying on gut feeling.”

The phenomenon she was exploiting  was slow versus fast thinking. As Daniel Kahneman would point out, she was relying on the fast system of her mind, not the second-guessing, deep thinking part. There was no double checking or deep internal cognitive processing that would reach into the depths of her knowledge to find the answer.

And it worked out pretty well. She only scored 7 points less than her norm on such tests. So we’re talking about it making a difference on 2-3 questions.

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So what’s the point?

It’s a fantastic example of a few things, first of how the mind works.

Phoebe and I both tend to draw crazy diagrams, flow charts, and pictures to understand the process behind how something works. If we can understand the frame work then the details fall into place. So I’m sure that Phoebe was well prepared and had a solid understanding of the framework on which she was being tested. This is important, because it means that Phoebe tends to push towards understanding and having a useful model of the problem, and isn’t reliant on rote memorization, which is common with most students.

So without getting too far into how the mind works, what we got to see was how well phoebe’s immediate/intuitive understanding part of the brain worked. There was no deep thinking or second guessing. It was just her instinctual reaction of what was right. In essence she put to test how well answers were ingrained into her “subconscious” versus having to consciously process everything.

This teaches us a great lesson, that if we ingrain something and understand the concept, we’re pretty spot on with our initial estimation. Our backup- deep thinking system (or system 2 in Daniel Kahnemann’s framework) serves to help correct our initial instinctual guesses. If Phoebe wasn’t as prepared, the discrepancy would be much larger between her instinctual answer and what she came up with by thinking deeper about it.

I thought this was a running blog, So what?

Besides the fact that Phoebe is pretty fast, what the heck does this have to do with running?

Here’s the deal, in a race or workout, we’re left with a ton of decisions to make and things to think about.

When talking with one of my collegiate athletes,  he was discussing the process of thinking during a recent 5k race. He summed it up his thought process as follows:  focus on getting in a good spot, “ride the train” for most of it, then reengage.  To be slightly more descriptive, his point was that in a 5k, there were key points in this type of race that he needed to be engaged and times when he could just let his instincts take over to stay on the pack. He knew that nothing major would occur in the first portion of the race. Within the first lap, he would know whether it was going to be a sit and kick or a go from the gun type adventure. As soon as he was aware that it was going to be fast, it was time to ride the train, zone out a bit, and then with 5 or so laps left re-engage and start focusing.

Why at that point? First, it was going to start to hurt really bad and doubts would start to scream at him to slow down or give up. Second, at this critical juncture moves would start to be made and people would start to falter. Up until this point in the race, his only thought was to stay connected, be able to have space to move, and go around people falling off the train. Now, he needed to be engaged so that he was prepared to move and focused enough to stay on pace.

During each race, this point of zoning in and out will differ. But what this athlete figured out  at is that you have a finite amount of focus you can elicit. And just like Phoebe did in her test taking, if the preperation was there, let the instinctual responses and answers take over for the most part. Only bring in that focus when we really need it.

For an 800m or even a mile, you might be able to focus the whole time, but for the longer stuff, it’s about being engaged enough, but really centering the bulk of your concentration or “deep thinking” when you really need it. It’s about knowing when to direct your full focus and attention, and when to let the mind be on autopilot, allowing all of the body wisdom from months of training and racing take over.

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    1. James Morris on July 23, 2017 at 9:51 am

      Watch out for “paralysis by analysis”.

      A “crippling disease” oft times “transmitted” by coaches!

    2. […] The Science of Running | Thinking Too Much: Are You an Instinctual or Analytical Runner? Another quality post from Steve Magness. Training yourself to have strong instinctual responses, but also knowing when to devote intentional thinking to a problem. […]

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