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The Recency Bias (And Other Mistakes You Are Probably Making)

The day before the 2018 Trail World Championships, our team walked up the stairs together to prepare our kits and gear. More accurately, we dragged ourselves up the stairs. Our rooms were located on the third floor of a Valencian resort headquarters where the participating teams were staying, and we were all suddenly overcome by a deep, collective torpor. The stairs seemed insurmountable in that moment. They stretched heavenward like Jack and the beanstalk, or the tower of Babel, or Nephelococcygia, the city in the sky from Aristophanes’ The Birds.

This was a worrisome sensation because, in fewer than 24 hours, we would be racing up and down mountains for 90 kilometers. But we laughed it off, recognizing the feeling as typical of the final day of a taper. The next morning, we lined up and had a great day of racing.

The Recency Bias

I always feel this way before big races. Every year, I drag my body around Ithaca the day before the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile. I effectively hibernate in the days preceding the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile, and I develop styrofoam Bambi legs in the week prior to every 24-hour run. I have become better at anticipating these feelings and embracing them, but tapers can be unsettling. After a season of high mileage and hard workouts, we incorporate more rest to get ready for the big day. Suddenly—and perhaps contrary to what one might expect—we feel awful. I have no idea why this happens and whether it is purely psychosomatic, but all of my friends agree that, in their tapers before big races, they generally feel sub-par. In Spain, our team felt sub-par together, ascending the never-ending (but actually only two flights) of hotel stairs, wondering what the mountains would feel like the following day.

It can be tempting to read too much into these final days and to enter the race with low confidence. But it is important to remember:

  1. You did do all of the hard work to prepare for the race.
  2. That work is still in your legs, even if the final week is dispiriting.
  3. To place too much weight on how you feel during your taper week is to succumb to a recency bias.

Your self-evaluation is overly swayed by what happened most recently because you remember it more vividly than all of the work that preceded it, and this is a distortion of your better judgment.

Conceptual Backdrop

When I teach Logic, I always end the semester with more focused attention on common fallacies and biases in our reasoning because I am getting ready to send students out in the world. I want them to be able to identify their own intellectual frailties and the mistakes of reasoning they are apt to encounter, in themselves and in others.

Fallacies: errors of reasoning; flawed arguments

Biases: systematic and often persistent cognitive or psychological tendencies toward patterns of erroneous thinking

We learn a number of common fallacies and biases and talk through examples. Then we comb through newspapers and popular media for instances of them. My students love this unit, and they come to class with tales of personal triumphs over the bad arguments they suddenly recognize in the world around them. I know the Fallacies and Biases unit is for my students, but as a consequence of repeatedly teaching this course, I have become more attuned to them myself. I’ve learned to better inspect my own habits of reasoning—in life and in running—and I have identified a number of repeated mistakes.

My intention in this article is to provide a primer of common errors of reasoning relevant to training and racing. There are too many relevant fallacies and biases to discuss in a single article, so I am going to start with a few here. In my April column, I will introduce some more.

A Selection of Errors

The Sunk-Cost Fallacy

You cling to things that you have invested time or resources into, even when it becomes unreasonable to do so. Your investment clouds your judgment.

Example: All signs point to your withdrawal from a race. Things are busy at work, and you have family obligations. You are somewhat injured, and you never actually trained. Still, you paid the registration fee, so you show up on race day.

Why it’s a fallacy: You’ve already made one bad investment, and this does not justify further bad investments (such as getting more injured or neglecting work responsibilities in order to attempt to ‘recover’ the investment of the initial bad decision). This would just be adding insult to injury.

The Availability Bias

This is the tendency to be disproportionately influenced by whatever comes most easily to mind. It can be something that was strange, emotionally charged in some way, or recent. (Note: The recency bias is a sub-type of the availability bias.)

Example 1: You pay a disproportionately large amount of attention to the one workout you knocked out of the park (or completely bombed) in a season of otherwise standard performances because it was so exciting and happy (or humiliating) for you.

Example 2: Another example is avoiding running on a particular trail because of a single negative encounter with a wild turkey you had, which you narrowly escaped using a sweet basketball pivot move. (This is purely hypothetical.) Maybe you’ve run that trail hundreds of times without any problems. Still, the wild-turkey incident was so emotionally charged that it left an indelible mark on you, and you avoid the trail altogether. (This example is about my ‘friend,’ and the wild turkey was realistically the size of a penguin.)

Why it’s a bias: Bad runs, good runs, recent runs, old runs, and all of the mundane runs you cannot remember are all valuable clues to your fitness. Just because you remember something better doesn’t mean it is actually more significant.

False Dilemma

This is either/or reasoning. You reason as though only two options exist when, really, there other alternatives.

Example: Either I win this race and have succeeded, or I lose this race and have failed. In reality, you may have failed in certain aspects of the race (nutrition, making strategic moves) but have been successful in other ways (running strong on the uphills and managing effort well).

Why it’s a fallacy: You are ignoring a range of possibilities. Also, the example I provided reveals an unproductive mindset because there are no process goals reflected in the two options.

Ad Verecundium Fallacy

This is an appeal to an unreliable authority.

Example: Sally on Facebook gave me good dietary advice. She said I should eat tubs of straight salt for three days preceding my ultramarathon. (Note: Sally is not a registered dietician.)

Why it’s a fallacy: If you are looking to find support for a piece of information, you need to identify someone who is an expert (or at least trustworthy) in that same field. The ‘same field’ part is crucial. For example, you don’t ask your dentist for political advice or your hairdresser how to floss. There are so many wonderful, dependable resources in the world of running—coaches, physiologists, dieticians, and credible websites—but people often rely on untrustworthy sources for training advice. Sally may know a lot, but it’s wise to question her authority if she lacks the relevant expertise on the topics for which she is giving advice.

Final Thoughts

In 2018, I ascended the endless stairs with my teammates and headed back to my room. I opened my training log and reviewed my runs from the months preceding—bad runs, good runs, recent runs, old runs, and all of the mundane runs I couldn’t recall through the haze of my present malaise. I slew the dragon of the recency bias, reclaimed my confidence, and was ready to go the next day.

As runners, we are reasoners, too. It can be helpful to inspect our own patterns of thinking and to address our biases and fallacies before they cloud our judgment to the detriment of our racing and training.

I hope you have a reasonable March. In April, I will name some more biases and fallacies.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Which of these fallacies and biases have you found yourself believing with regard to your training and racing?

The author with her husband, David, while feeling the recency bias on a taper run before the 2017 Cayaga Trails 50 Mile. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Little.

Sabrina Little: is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

View Comments (2)

  • I've run some races that were major enough to have a build-up and taper, and recognize the same experience. Eventually, it became so familiar that it didn't worry me, but I do also wonder if in part it's not the body trying to save energy for the intense effort that it knows is too come.

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  • I love this! Appeal to Authority (Ad Verecundium) is so prevalent in training- 'but it worked for me!' Or 'I learned this from someone who went to Oxford'
    Strawman
    Ad Hominem
    Red Herring
    Bring it.

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