Delusions- and why they are useful

The following is a response Mel sent to my post on delusions the other day. I’ve asked her if it’s okay to post here.

Delusions are defined as… an idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument.

Before I begin, I do want to outline the times when I believe that delusions (and I am talking grandiose delusions here) are completely unhelpful in running. It is often unhelpful in a race (particularly a marathon) to have a delusion that you can on this day hold your 5k pace for 42 k. It is also unhelpful (but perhaps easier to recover from) if you think that you can run at you 200m pace for 5 x 1k. Perhaps the worst time to hold a delusion is when there are signs that an injury is emerging. How many times have we ignored that niggle as nothing, believed it is possible to run it off or ignored pain that seems to dissipate during a run but hurts like hell after? Deluding oneself that this will go away without changing something is pretty dangerous. So when are delusions useful and important?

Firstly, there are those times when privately you have imagined or fantasised about achieving a particular time, despite there being no evidence in your training, or previous race performance that you can achieve it, but you hold it anyway. You ignore those calculators that are based on carefully researched formulas and you believe that enthusiasm and spirit will get that goal anyway- and sometimes it does. There are just those days when your delusion come true.. those days where everything goes right. Believing in the delusion helps you to run with it.. and not freak out.

I agree with you Richard that there is a grey area where delusion/ positive thinking/ambition and visualisation may overlap, but ultimately it started out as a delusion in the strictest sense of the definition. Because some visualisations/ positive thoughts have no evidence to support them. Really, when I said the line “ we need delusions..” what I was really referring to were the times I tell myself in the morning, when it is dark, windy and wet that “There is no other option, you must get up” (because this is of course not true, I am choosing to get up, I could stay in bed). Or “This will be wonderfully refreshing” (when actually it’s fucking miserable), or when I pretend that I am not really tired or that it is not really dark. Or I tell myself that running every day, doing this session will make me a better runner. Yes I know there is some evidence for this, but only when it is followed properly with a proper programme. I make mine up, taking random bits from other people’s, then lie and tell myself that this will help. If I began to look at the evidence I would realise I am doing lots of things wrong, not enough of one thing too much of another. Thinking about what I should be doing may inspire me, or make me feel a bit sad and frustrated at myself, for not being sensible…Ultimately, all these logical thoughts would stop me from getting up and just running.

I also invent stories for myself so that I run my long runs no matter how hungover. I lie deliberately and tell myself that this is really good for me. It probably isn’t. Again this is a belief I held that has no evidence base. Not that I have really looked it up, I just create the belief to do it.

Then there are the bigger delusions like “Spending my time running and devoting all this time to running is the best way to spend my life or going running training 7 times a week is more important than…”sleeping/ working/ relaxing/ calling my mother/ learning something/ seeing friends/ spending time with a partner. ” Not necessarily a true delusion but more a tendency to only see the confirmatory evidence and ignore evidence that contradicts this. I need to do this or I end up stuck and confused about how to spend my time. The complicating factor here is that human beings including myself rarely appraise our beliefs, particularly those we are invested in, in a systematic way. Instead, we engage in heuristics/ biases. The most common bias in runners like me who are delusional is the “confirmation bias”. Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.

Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.

Take my belief that I if I need to run every day and do a certain amount of miles I will be a better marathon runner. Or my belief that my legs feeling heavy is just a sign that I am just doing the necessary hard training. Or my belief that getting up each day and training in the dark makes me a mentally tougher runner, capable of more grit in a marathon. What signs do I look for that prove my theory? I am certainly going to ignore any times where I feel slow, in fact I will deliberately not look at my watch at these times. I will take notice of the times I place in the top five, but ignore the time, and the number of people in this race compared to other races where I placed this high. Sometimes I plan to deliberately avoid any information that disproves my theory, particularly in longer races where staring at splits that are slower than the year before is not going to inspire me for 42k. So instead I race by heartrate, this is a kind of conscious delusion, and avoidance of disconfirmation.

Then there is the self serving attribution bias… In situations with definite outcomes (ie win/lose), our perceptions of why we either won or lost have important consequences for our affective states (eg feelings of pride, anger or shame), self-esteem, future motivations and behaviours (eg persistence).

It is evident that different people can have widely varying perceptions about the same event or situation.

I like to really take advantage and maximise my ability for “self-serving bias’ – a tendency to attribute success to internal factors, such as ability and effort, and failures to uncontrollable external causes such as luck or weather conditions. In simple terms: when I win it’s all down to me and my efforts (good for confidence), but when I lose it wasn’t my fault (a form of ego-protection and a way to maintain self-esteem. I have a lot of these, usually with some kernel of truth. For example, if I hadn’t been injured or if I had chosen the other shoes. All these delusions have some basis in reality. I know a lot of people who attribute a slower training session to a hard session the night before, to protect their self belief. Often people deliberately defend their self belief by sabotaging their performance in some way e.g. drinking the night before and using the hangover as an excuse.

My point it that sometimes we need to believe in things that don’t seem at that time possible, and ignore the evidence around us that may discourage us from training that day, or continuing to train in order to keep doing it, because sometimes training is quite hard within a busy life. Doing this to the extreme is a problem. Perhaps a more important learning outcome from this whole exercise is my realisation that I should never give a flippant, badly thought out comment to Richard Lyle…

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Delusions Are Important

“Delusions are important,” says Mel. “If we didn’t lie to ourselves, we wouldn’t do anything.” I’m not sure that’s true. I think ambition is important. I think that striving is important. I think stretch goals are important if you want to improve. I know that chasing someone you think is quicker than you around a track is a good way to get faster yourself. That’s not deluding yourself; it’s giving yourself a target.

An honest assessment of where you are in your training is important when you go out and run your race. There is no point in going out at a pace you can’t sustain unless you just want lungfuls of pain and sore and sorry legs to go with the humiliation of limping home stylelessly. Why go out at six minute miles when you’re going to cross the line shambling at half the pace. Go out steadily, pick up the pace as you go on and then finish like a train, picking up places all the time.

Maybe it’s not really delusions, maybe it’s dreams or visualisations. Sometimes we need to see ourselves doing things we haven’t yet done to believe we can do them. Does that make sense? There are all sorts of visualisation techniques athletes use to help them perform to the very best of their ability. I still don’t think that’s lying to ourselves although it is creating something which isn’t real.

There will always be times when ambition exceeds ability, sometimes to a heroically comic extent. The one time I almost ran a 200m PB chasing Group 1 home at the very end of a cut-down and then spent the next ten minutes throwing up into a bin by the side of the track. I was still off the back of the group and I hadn’t done the six and a half kilometers running up to that last effort. Or the Kevin Henry 5k at Impington where I had to stop with 800m to go for a tactical chunder. Those efforts were certainly delusional.

There is one context in which goals should not be easily attainable. If you always exceed your expectations, then your expectations are too low. Your sandbagging yourself. That’s as bad for you as never attaining your goals because they are unrealistically high. Perhaps there is a compromise to be made in which you reach your goals a little over half the time.

So, is setting a stretch goal the same as self-delusion, as lying to yourself? It’s an interesting question.

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