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How Attitudes Can Change Performance

Photo of treadmill.

Researchers had people run on a treadmill to assess how their perception of themselves affected their performance. (Larry D. Moore, Wikimedia Commons)

When faced with a problem that seems impossible to solve, it’s incredibly easy to give up. When it comes to physical obstacles, however, our attitudes affect our bodies to a surprising degree.

In an experiment, researchers tested participants for gene variants that affected endurance during exercise, and also had participants take a treadmill test.  A week later, half the participants were told they had the low endurance variant, and the other half were told they had the high endurance variant—not based on what their tests showed, but on which group they had been randomly placed in. Then, they took the treadmill test again.

Those told that they had the low endurance variant did worse on the test than before, even if they actually had the high endurance variant. On average, their bodies removed carbon dioxide less efficiently, their lung capacity dropped, and they stopped running 22 seconds sooner.

Those who had been told they had the high endurance variant ran longer on average, even if they had the low endurance gene.

The researchers saw this pattern repeat when they did a similar experiment with a gene that affects how full we feel after eating. Some of the changes in how peoples’ bodies reacted after they were told they had a certain gene variant were larger than the differences between people who actually had the different forms of the genes.

This means that attitude might affect us more than our genes do.

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