You are Here neon sign - best case fallacyThe evidence suggests that certain groups of men are more likely to get injured. Those doing too much, too soon, and newbies are at more risk. Anyone who has been injured before and re-starters all get injured more. What can you do to stop yourself from falling into that group of injured runners? Understanding the best case fallacy could help and it applies to almost all other healthy and unhealthy behaviours as well.

None of those blokes who got injured thought it would happen to them. I’m sure they all started their running exploits full of hope and heady ambition. Yet, they got broken. They were super-optimistic and probably, if they were anything like me, had dreamy notions of smashing personal records and athletic glory. So what if I’ve never won anything in my life. This time will be different.

Here’s the problem: You probably don’t think that risk of injury applies to you. You say: That’s not going to happen to me. 

Most people think they are above average intelligence and better than average drivers. They can’t all be correct.

It is incredibly common to over-estimate your own abilities and under-estimate the chances of a negative outcome. Most people think they are above average intelligence and better than average drivers. It’s a mathematical certainty that they can’t all be correct.

This might be the single biggest barrier standing in your way of changes to your lifestyle. You think there is still time. In the back of your head you probably aren’t thinking it will be you.

Everyone thinks it won’t happen to them.

Until, of course, it does. Whether it is the bloke who has a heart attack in his 40s or the guy who develops lung cancer. “Sure, I knew cigarettes were bad for my health but…”

They just didn’t think it would be them. They thought they would be the exception.

It helps to see the consequences. We’ve all seen this in action. The bloke who gets a bit of chest pain that, hopefully, turns out to be nothing. Often it’s enough of a jolt to drive change. A little bit of panic felt deep down in the knackers. Shit. I am mortal. It could happen to me.

Don’t wait until the scare to change your behaviour.

 

The Best Case Fallacy

Roger Scruton is an English philosopher. In 2002, the Guardian reported that he wrote articles criticising tobacco control while taking, undeclared, money from Japan Tobacco International. This would, to my hopelessly naïve and idealistic eyes, seem like an indelible bloodstain on anyone’s hands. Scruton was, ahem, knighted in 2016 for services to “philosophy, teaching and public education”. But I digress.

Happily, Scruton’s work can also be used to encourage people to give up smoking and adopt healthy behaviours. Here’s what he said:

“The best case fallacy is the mindset of the gambler… Gamblers are not risk-takers at all; they enter the game in full expectation of winning it, led by their illusions to bask in an unreal sense of safety.”

The best case fallacy highlights that the default human state is incurable optimism and it applies to almost all human activities.

You can certainly consider it when it comes to your lifestyle. Mostly everyone knows what is ‘good’ for them and what isn’t. I haven’t met a single person who genuinely thinks smoking doesn’t have a downside. Smokers know they are taking a bit of a gamble but mostly they expect to dodge the bullet. (And a few have weighed up the damage and risks against the pleasure it gives them and decided to keep on puffing.)

The sofa-bound are the same. Sure, some of them may think, I know there are benefits from exercise but, well, it’s hard and I don’t like it. And, crucially, deep down many of them think it won’t happen to me.

Roger Scruton called this ‘unscrupulous optimism’.

 

Tackling the Best Case Fallacy

Always look on the bright side gif - best case fallacyThe single best way to tackle the best case fallacy is to know it exists. Recognise that your mind will always looks on the bright side. That may be enough to shake you out of your reverie.

Understand that you live in a self-imposed state of ignorance.

One tactic is to sit and think through the logical consequences of your current lifestyle. Imagine if you were to continue [insert bad habit of choice]. What will happen in six months or in six years? Develop a fully fleshed out picture of how you would feel about it. How would you look back on those previous years? What opportunities will you have missed?

Another option is to try a little negative role modelling. Find, if you can, examples of men who haven’t hit the brakes. Perhaps a smoker you know who ploughed on into their 30s, and then 40s, maybe even their 50s. I smoked a little at times in my 20s but when I came to quit it was relatively easy to conjure images of smoking related harm. The bloke in his 50s dying of lung cancer I met in my first junior doctor job. My grandad suffering unremitting leg pain from hardening of the arteries and the tortures he went through trying to shake off smoking in his 60s. Look at those blokes still drinking or overeating or never exercising. They might be quite happy. If they have regrets then ask yourself if you want to have those too.

But remember this: there is survivor bias. You can’t see the ones who fell by the wayside.

I’m not as bad as…

Referencing other people’s unhealthy behaviour is an inverse form of comparisonitis and it is just as toxic.

Another pitfall is to compare yourself with someone who is ‘worse’ than you (at least in your eyes). I’ve seen blokes do this a lot in the clinic. It is perhaps the competitive social conditioning to which men are so prone. They’ve always got one eye on the hierarchy. They say: I may be a little overweight but I’m not as bad as [insert name of other bloke].

Recognise that referencing other people’s unhealthy behaviour is an inverse form of comparisonitis and it is just as toxic. Don’t measure yourself by other men’s standards.

Be a little more pessimistic. You may prefer to call it ‘realistic optimism’. It’s been found by researchers to be associated with higher levels of resilience.

Hope it doesn’t happen to you. But recognise it can.

And use it to help you adopt the healthy behaviours you want and reduce the risk of injury that will stop you from making your exercise a lifelong habit.

 

Notes: Photo by Inês Ferreira and John Baker from the totally awesome Unsplash

 

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