Emily Balcetis: Why some people find exercise harder than others


Emily Balcetis is a social psychologist from NYU.


People perceive the world differently. A softball player sees the ball as tiny compared to one on a good streak, and a dieter sees an apple as bigger than it is. In political views, people looked at a picture of Obama that had been artificially lightened or darkened, and asked which looked closer to reality. His supporters preferred the lightened picture, while opponents thought the dark picture was closer to reality. Why is this?

Our eyes actually see very little. The amount of vision actually in clear focus is the size of our thumb at arms length. The rest is ambiguous, and filled in by our mind. So people’s perceptions are different, but what influences people to literally see the world differently? Emily focussed on people’s health & fitness- how their perception changes their views towards it.

Some people might see exercise as easier or more difficult. She looked at people’s hip-to-waist circumference ratio – an objective assessment of people’s fitness. She then tested them in a race to a finish line while carrying weights, and beforehand each participant was asked to estimate how far away the finish line was. The results supported her idea: people who were fitter perceived the race as shorter than those who weren’t.

She followed up with a similar test on people’s motivation: those who had few fitness goals (unmotivated) vs those who were still striving. For those who were unmotivated, the results were similar to before; the fittest people saw the distance as shorter than the unfit. For the motivated group, they saw the opposite: fitter people saw the distance as further. People’s motivation and fitness were both influencing their perception of the difficulty of a physical challenge.

Emily wanted to see if we can learn anything from this – to improve our motivation or fitness by perceiving things differently. The strategy she suggests is “Keep your eye on the prize”. People have to stay focussed on the finish line, look at it in the centre of their vision and avoid looking elsewhere. When she retested, people adopting this strategy saw the finish as 30% closer than those who didn’t. She made the challenge more difficult by adding more weights (15% of their body weight), and afterwards the “eye on prize” people reported it was 17% easier than the control group. They also moved 23% faster. This is a simple, free strategy that makes exercise easier, and makes people perform better.

We see the world through our mind’s eye, but can train ourselves to see it differently. Sometimes days look worse than they are – you can see only negative expressions on everyone else’s faces. But you need to remind yourself that this may not be true. Some days are full of insurmountable challenges, but we can teach ourselves to see it differently. If we see the world differently, it might actually become so.

My Thoughts

The general topic about people’s perceptions changing their vision (and vice versa) was interesting and thought-provoking. Having said that, I’d find it difficult to apply “Keep your eyes on the prize” in situations to improve my fitness. The race she was testing was only 20-30ft away (or at least that’s the range people were perceiving it), so the goal would be clearly in sight throughout. For a marathon this is more difficult. Or for a less tangible exercise goal, such as 50 pushups or weightlifting or injury rehabilitation I’m not sure how you could apply this. The principle of focussing yourself only on the goal and ignoring other thoughts and doubts might help, but the talk and experiment was focussed on vision.


In trying to see if others had this concern, I read into the Youtube comments for the video. Must remind myself to not do that; especially for a young female speaker, the nutjobs seem to come out of the woodwork and attack everything about personality, looks, speaking style. Although I must admit, the example of darkening Obama and implicitly calling people racists was a little distracting from her point.


One thought on “Emily Balcetis: Why some people find exercise harder than others

  1. Thanks for posting this summary. I too wonder how to apply the eyes on the prize strategy to different goals. I wonder if for a short race like a 5k, a person might go see the finish line before starting the race, and then, imagine the finish line and think only of that. I’m not sure how well that would work though as I’ve run many 5k’s and I like to focus on one segment at a time instead of the entire race. So maybe it would work better to spotlight the end of a segment. Then the next segment and the next. What do you think?

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