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.

Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation


Dan Pink is the author of five books about business, work, and management that have sold two million copies worldwide


Dan Pink introduces ‘The Candle Problem’ – attaching a candle to a wall with a box of thumbtacks and matches to that it doesn’t drip. 2 groups try to solve the problem – one is told they are timing to discover norms, while the other is given money if they are in the top 25%. This test consistently shows that the group being given money is 3minutes slower than the other. Other research over 40 years backs up the idea that for most tasks you can’t incentivize people to perform better with money. This is one of the most robust findings from social science, but also the most ignored. There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

Extrinsic motivators do however work well for ’20th century tasks’ – with manual work and simple solutions. The reward narrows their focus towards the answer, and pushes them to solve it quicker. But most modern professionals don’t do this kind of work, they do much more complicated tasks with no easy answer. An MIT study found a similar result – for simple mechanistic tasks a reward improved their performance, but if they required ANY kind of cognitive function the higher reward decreased performance.

Modern psychology is leaning more towards intrinsic motivators – the desire to do more for personal reasons. In the business setting it revolves around

  • autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives
  • mastery – the urge to get better, or develop skills
  • and purpose – the need to do what we do for reasons bigger than ourselves.

Dan’s talk focuses on autonomy. Management is an example that improves compliance, but decreases autonomy for most workers. Modern approaches can increase autonomy – giving people a personal project. Atlassian for example is a software company that makes engineers take a day off their normal work to develop whatever they want – as long as it is unrelated to their normal work and they deliver something by the end of the day. This approach was so successful that they adopted Google’s famous approach, which lets people allocate 20% of their time to personal projects. Around half of Google’s new products come from engineer’s personal projects.

A more extreme approach is ROWE – Results Only Work Environment. People can work whatever hours they want as long as they do the work. This increases autonomy and productivity, and decreases staff turnover.

Dan’s ultimate example was Microsoft Encarta vs Wikipedia. Encarta was build by well paid professionals and managers, incentivized with standard extrinsic motivators. Wikipedia was built by unpaid (autonomous) volunteers for fun, and because they believed in the project. In 1999 no economist would have tipped that Encarta’s model would be overtaken by Wikipedia’s, but it has.

If we get past the simplistic ‘carrots vs sticks’ ideology, and allow people to be more motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose, we can make our businesses stronger and maybe change the world.