Spend enough time in the running world and you begin to notice some patterns. New ideas, concepts, or training methods come up, bounce around in obscurity for awhile, then catch on like wildfire. They persist for a period of time, then eventually get replaced by some new idea. This pattern applies to pretty much any aspect of human social interactions, but we’ll stick to running for this discussion.
Some examples of this phenomenon include ideas like:
- Running long, slow distance training,
- Paleo diet
- High intensity interval training,
- Barefoot running,
- Vegan diet,
- Motion control shoes,
- Moisture-wicking clothing,
- Yasso 800’s,
- Foam rollers,
- Low heart rate training,
- Couch to 5k programs,
- High mileage training,
- Low mileage training,
- Dynamic stretching,
- Ice baths,
- Use of orthotics,
- Compression gear
All of these things, at one time or another, captured a large audience within the running community. Some have been backed by science. Some are the product of anecdotal evidence. Most of us will experiment with these ideas. If they work, we continue using them. If not, we abandon them.
Some of us, however, tend to latch on to one idea and hang on to it. We build a defensive barrier around the idea to reject any information that runs counter to the idea. We seek out just enough information to confirm our belief, then we shut out any and all conflicting information. This psychological mechanism results in a distinctly black and white view of the world. The thought that our ideas may be wrong causes us a great deal of stress. We need definitive answers. This leads us to assume a “fanatic” persona.
Psychologists refer to this as a need for closure. Popular media and pop psychology likes to refer to the term as a means of tying loose ends. This is more or less correct, but a better explanation is closure as a need to eliminate ambiguity. We need to have a clear, obvious path to follow.
Let’s use barefoot running as an example. It’s clear barefoot running is some benefit for some people some of the time. It’s also clear barefoot running is not applicable to all people in all situations. However, some people that start barefoot running believe just that. They will believe barefoot running is the lone key to success (however they define success) and all other options or variations are invalid. Furthermore, they extend this idea to all people in the population.These individuals have a strong need for closure. Ambiguity cannot be tolerated.
This strong need for closure causes problems because it insulates us from advancing. We start with a question:
- How can we run better?
We find an answer to the question:
- Barefoot running
We find some evidence to support the idea:
- One or two empirical studies indirectly supporting barefoot running, maybe a few anecdotal success stories, or maybe some initial personal success.
Which satisfies our need to validate (and rationalize) our belief, which then leads us to ignore or blankly refute contrary evidence, such as:
- There are some conditions where barefoot running is impossible, some people may not have adequate physiological requirements, wearing shoes may allow you to perform better, etc.
I spend a fair amount of time perusing various forums and blogs. I love hearing other people’s opinions… mostly because it gives me fuel to question my own beliefs. It’s common to come across people that have an obviously high need for closure and equally obvious low need for closure.
The high closure people talk in absolutes. They only cite evidence that supports their argument. They seemingly have no ability to see a different perspective.
The low closure people hem and haw. Their ambiguity is often perceived as a lack of conviction. Their thoughts and opinions change with new evidence, and they never firmly commit to any one thing.
Want a good test to see where you probably fall? Answer this question:
What happens when you die?
High closure people will have an answer (Heaven/Hell, reincarnation, worm food, etc.)
Low closure people will not have an answer, or answer “I don’t know.”
So… Now What?
As much as I would like to say all of us need to be low closure people, I’m going to resist. I DO prefer communicating with others with low need for closure because I like the open-mindedness. Two of my favorite bloggers, Christian Peterson and Pete Larson, are excellent example of running bloggers that keep a healthy skepticism in their discussions on all things related to running.
I occasionally like communication with high closure people, but more because I like to be antagonistic.
There’s utility in both conditions. The low closure folks tend to be innovators. The high closure people give us a degree of stability. It’s probably a moot point anyway, all of us probably meet some criteria of both conditions depending on the specific belief.
What about you? Do you think you’re a high or low closure person? How do you think this affects you as a runner? How do you treat new running “fads?”