The Swimmer's Body Illusion and Other Brain Fails
I have been seeing the phrase “The Swimmer's Body Illusion” a lot recently. It has been mentioned in a popular self help book and has piqued the interest of many.
The Swimmer's Body Illusion describes the thought process that we (most all of us) use when we see the physique of a successful athletic swimmer. We might admire their physique and see it as the result of all that training. Moreover, we are likely to believe that if we were to train equally hard we’d achieve a similar physique.
But it is simply not true. Well, not true for most of us. You see really successful athletes start off with a body already well suited to their sport. The training hones what their genetics gave them, but if you are long and lanky then you’re unlikely to attain the physique of a successful swimmer; basketball or distance running might be an option though.
If you are shorter and stockier then your chances of attaining the physique of a world champion long distance runner are effectively nil.
World champion swimmers tend to have longer arms, broad shoulders etc. These they hone with training. On its own, training won't lengthen your arms.
This is a variation on the theme of selection bias - we see the results without making an allowance for the pre-selection that went on before those results were worked on.
Here's another example. We are often told that successful business people and entrepreneurs trust their instincts. And we should trust our instincts if we too are to be successful in business.
But there are another group who trust their instincts. This group is composed (or decomposed) of corpses. Trusting your instincts only makes sense if your instincts are good ones.
Cemeteries are full of people who trusted their instincts, and should not have.
Most of us don't dev . elop good instincts by magic. We develop them through learning and experience. If someone tells me that Richard Branson trusts his instincts when viewing a business opportunity, they tell me nothing. Mr Branson has such a wealth of experience and practise that his instincts are well honed. And once he makes a choice he can back that with skills and resources I can only imagine
Viewing the same information my instincts would likely lead me elsewhere. And even if I chose “right” I still might not have the resources and skills necessary to succeed with that choice.
Seemingly every day another book is published where someone “analyses” the characteristics of some admirable group and “discovers” that they have in common some abstract “quality” that we can emulate to share in their success.
These books are 99% garbage because they start with selection bias. They also tend to confirm the biases of the authors (confirmation bias: we find what we wanted or expected to find).
Great companies we are told have great corporate cultures. Lousy companies have lousy cultures. How do we know? Well we ask people working in a successful company and they tell us it is great. And the opposite also applies. But when a great company fails, can we look back and see a change in corporate culture? Often we cannot. Because the culture stayed the same all through, it was just that people were happier when successful and reported a great culture as a result.
The effect of these beliefs is that we have people and industries pursuing illusory goals - to follow their instincts, to build a great culture; In other words, to develop a swimmer's body. Whereas the right choice for us, for that group, for this business, might be something entirely different. [