Mandatory Reading: The Psychology of Gel Use

A look at psychological framing and its effects on ultramarathons.

By on May 21, 2013 | Comments

I recently awarded myself an honorary doctoral degree in psychology after reading a series of books that cumulated with Daniel Kahnemen’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Naturally I appointed myself to the iRunFar Psychology Chair to reach out to my fellow ultrarunners. I recommend reading this essay at least twice.

Based on the halo effect people tend to place higher levels of trust in information from people they like or admire regardless in the quality of information presented. So if the girl handing out free cases of sunflower-seed butter at the post-race party casually mentions that Scott Jurek eats organic beet gel you are far more likely to try this yourself than if your cranky boss asked you to work the weekend and then recommended the same gel. The likelihood remains the same even if your boss also gave you a trove of peer-reviewed scientific reports on the amazing power of beet gel.

People tend to trust anecdotal evidence even if it flies in the face of well established base rates. Suppose you were best friends with Karl Meltzer. Suppose you and Karl had just finished up a session of partner yoga. Right before he speeds away in his shiny new Bentley he looks you in the eye and tells you he ate four gels an hour at the Run Rabbit Run 100. Since you also heard this from another friend yesterday, the availability heuristic suggests you are more likely to try this yourself even though it flies in the face of conventional knowledge (everyone knows you should eat at least seven gels an hour at altitude).

Now suppose while running the Hardrock 100 counterclockwise a feeling of certain death overcomes you as you climb into the nest of Virginius Pass. Why are you likely to follow Julien Chorier’s lead and hit three gels at once and then keep rolling? The sunk cost fallacy says that people would rather suffer than accept a loss. As I am sure you already guessed, it’s not failing to finish that is the greatest potential loss here, the true burning potential loss is not getting your proper share of gels at the remaining aid stations. After all, you paid for them.

Imagine for a moment that you love the Western States 100 more than life itself. Also imagine that people refer to you in catchy, three-letter form and your second love is repeating that you have finished top 10 at this race a Guinness-certified world record of seven times. You are making the grueling climb to Green Gate where miles of buttery, fast singletrack awaits you. If the aid station attendant said to you “do you want more or less than seven gels?” the studies indicate you would leave Green Gate with less pocket space than if asked “do you want more or less than two gels?” This simple phenomenon is referred to as anchoring by my peers.

Luckily you’ve been following both Jurek’s and Meltzer’s methods by eating four beet gels an hour. However you encounter a serious dilemma. The Brighton Lodge at mile 75 of the Wasatch Front 100 has grape gels containing organic aspartame. Faced with overwhelming temptation, you end up eating nine gels the next hour while cresting Sunset Pass. Fortunately for you regression of the mean indicates that the next hour you will likely eat less than nine gels and thus restore alignment with your normal point.

Now the endowment effect creates a fascinating challenge for your crew at the Fish Hatchery towards the end of your spectacular Leadville 100 debut. In this scenario, we’ll assume that you actually do not have a borderline unhealthy obsession with the Canadian band Rush. Upon arrival your Rush tank top is mired in filth and gel drippings. Hoping to avoid holding their breath around you at May Queen an attempt is made to decontaminate you. If they try to give you a clean Van Halen tank you are likely to resist more here at the hatchery than you would have protested if they tried this cruel stunt the day before while trying on the tank prior to purchase.

Living the fantasy life of most Americans you have listened to Justin Bieber all day while consuming 67 gels at the Vermont 100. When you arrive at Sergeant’s aid station on this particularly hot and humid July day the friendly attendant asks “would you like three tasty gels to power you home?” Compare that to if your tired and annoyed crew asks “do you really want to load up on three more gels if you are just going to projectile vomit again in 400 yards?” The subtle trick the attendant used is referred to by my colleagues as framing.

Finally this brings us to our grand conclusion. Study after study has shown that people actually choose longer durations of unpleasant conditions if the high point and end point are positive. We in academia refer to this as the peak-end theory, which explains why you continue to run ultras even if they hurt so badly for hours on end. The high associated with gel consumption throughout the day, particularly the hot banana gel you administer at mile 98 later creates a powerful pleasant illusion of the race by the remembering self overriding the actual miserable experiencing self.

I open the floor to questions. In the highly unlikely situation that any readers have read Kahneman, have an authentic advanced degree in psychology, or have watched every episode of the hit TV show Friends, I would ask that you email me your congratulatory remarks instead of filling precious space intended for pressing questions on this hot issue.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Where else have you seen some of the, shall we say, psychological phenomena described by Evan at play during trail runs or races?
  • When have you found yourself bound up in some strange or slightly irrational behavior all for the sake of our beloved sport?
  • A more serious thought: ultrarunning, like life, is an experiment of one. Have you ever found yourself trying new things not because you’ve been informed by your own experience and/or intuition but because of outside influence? Has this ever led you to trouble?
Evan Honeyfield
Evan Honeyfield, a former and hopefully future ultrarunner lives in the high desert of Idaho and recently had LASIK. He carries his gel in UltrAspire gear, his sole sponsor. He learned about compassion and empathy in 2012 and is hoping to see the world clearer in 2013.