You shouldn't take weight loss success stories at face value. I'm not talking about stories like "I dropped 25kg by using this magical thing!" Those are obviously a load of crock. I'm talking about stories like "I tried for years, but I finally realised I just had to work hard and it paid off!" The idea of hard work sounds very nice, but let's not forget a little thing known as survivorship bias.
Image by jayneandd.
Survivorship bias, essentially, is fixating on the winners and the successful. It might make sense to copy what they do to also find success yourself, but therein lies the salty plum: You don't see or hear about the majority that have crashed and burned. This is significant because it fosters false expectations, distorts the so-called recipe for success, and makes you believe success is more common than it truly is.
The inspiration for this post comes from the latest article by Sol Orwell, co-founder of independent nutrition research site Examine.com. Although he talks about the success and promises of gurus like Tony Robbins in his article, survivorship bias can be extrapolated to the fitness world. Heaven knows we see plenty of "successful" weight loss stories.
When you read a weight loss success story, many are designed to cater to what many marketers call your "pain points", which tempt you to lean in closer and wonder, What's their secret? They tell you, of course: They did this diet, followed this workout program, and waited for the stars to perfectly align. In the end, it becomes clear: Aha, you say, so that's what I need in my life, at which point, these gurus are all like cha-ching! (It's worth noting, though, that there are also a ton of good guys out there.)
You don't need me to tell you that what works for someone else may not necessarily work for you, but I did anyway. No doubt, these stories are inspirational, spouting off a ton of platitudes, and might be particularly titillating if you're struggling with the same problem and the successful person seems just like you (another tactic); but think about it: There are many details you don't know below the surface.
Maybe they worked out three to five hours a day or their genetics predispose them to certain results. Also likely, they weren't exactly sure what they did before would work, and only in hindsight did they realise that what they doubted was actually right and awesome. As the You Are Not So Smart blog writes a bit more generally:
Keep in mind that those who fail rarely get paid for advice on how not to fail, which is too bad because despite how it may seem, success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage.
The next time someone tells you that they lost a bunch of weight on some exciting regimen, you should immediately follow up with these two questions:
- How long have you kept the weight off? As we've pointed out before, exercising itself is a smaller blip on the radar of your weight loss efforts. In fact, it's typical for people to regain their weight (and then pile on some). Before you take stock in a person's recommendation or story, find out more about how they're doing after.
- Are you still following the regimen? Because, as you know, no one sticks to unrealistic diets for more than a couple of months, if that.
The author of You Are Not So Smart adds:
When looking for advice, you should look for what not to do, for what is missing as Phil Plait suggested, but don't expect to find it among the quotes and biographical records of people whose signals rose above the noise.
Because if you focus only on the success stories, you have a very incomplete view of the whole picture.