What Do Runners Think About When They Run?

I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state because it was such a joy to run. Louisa May Alcott

What do runners think about when they run? Kathryn Schulz asked this question in her article on the New Yorker website. She posed this question as she began reflecting about the more than 50,000 runners who recently ran the New York Marathon, an ordeal of 26.2 miles, from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the finish line in Central Park

Some of the fastest runners completed the distance in a little over 2 hours, others around 6, while others didn't finish at all. She said asking about what runners are thinking during this grueling race is a reasonable question, since running 26.2 miles inevitably involves a great deal of time to think. She writes,

“To run five or ten or twenty-six miles is, as much as anything else, to engage in a sustained way with the deep strangeness that is the human mind.”

Is it really such a reasonable question? I imagine the thoughts of runners of any distance vary as much as the number of runners. I say this in light of the fact that I was once a runner, each day of the week, no matter the weather, hot or cold, sunny or cloudy, humid or dry. My thoughts while running were never the same from one day to the next.

I am also uncertain if it is a reasonable question knowing how difficult it is to measure the thoughts of runners while running or doing anything else for that matter. Schulz cites a study that attempted to do this.

The study, conducted by Ashley Samson and three colleagues, was published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Each of the ten runners were asked to describe what what they were thinking while running. Shultz writes “Afterward, the researchers transcribed those monologues, identified the thoughts they contained, and divided them up into three categories: Pace and Distance, Pain and Discomfort, and Environment.”

What is one to make of this study? The group was rather small (10), only one run was measured, and from Schulz’s description we know nothing about how long they ran, the gender of the runners or the weather conditions the day the study was conducted. With these caveats, the results indicated the runners spent most of their time thinking about their pace and how long the distance was.

The researchers wrote, “pain and discomfort were never far from their thoughts…all told, fully a third of runners’ thoughts concerned the downsides of running. The remaining thoughts pertained to the runners’ immediate environment…terrain and wildlife, and thoughts about weather, traffic, and the other people around them.”

In general, my experience confirms these findings. Some days I fretted about how cold or windy it was, other days I thought about the classes I was to teach, and then some days I worried about the dog racing after me, if he would jump on my back, crashing me to the pavement as he had done once before.

Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running answered Schulz’s question as clearly as anyone when he wrote: “What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.” He also added that he would never know what he was thinking while running unless he put his thoughts in writing, as he did in those two sentences.

Regardless of all these weighty particulars, countless research studies have demonstrated that exercise seems to stimulate our neurons and synapses. So throw away those crossword and Sudoku puzzles and go for a swim, walk, bike ride, or run. You’ll be healthier, feel better, loose some weight, and power-up your brain.


Phishing for Phools

In 1984 Robert Cialdini published Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion in which he described six compliance techniques--Reciprocity, Commitment, Social Proof, Scarcity, Liking and Authority-- that are widely used to influence behavior. Advertisers use them, government agencies use them, corporations use them.

Last year (2015), thirty-one years later, economists and Nobel laureates George Akerlof and Robert Schiller have to a large extent recast and expanded upon Cialdini’s ideas in their book, Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception.

While Cialdini’s formulation focused on how individuals respond to “professional compliance” techniques, Akerlof and Shiller offer a more general account of why free markets “make fools of us” by capitalizing on human weaknesses.

According to Cass Sunstein’s review (New York Review of Books, 10/22/15) Akerlof and Shiller distinguish between phish and phools. Phisherman such as banks, drug companies, real estate agents, automobile salesmen, and cigarette companies take advantage of human failings to do something that is in the phisherman’s interest, but not in the phools.

Human failings are any number of human errors such as overconfidence, loss aversion and short term, rather than long term bias. Sunstein writes:

Informational phools are victimized by factual claims that are intentionally designed to deceive them, …psychological phools [are] led astray either by their emotions…or by cognitive biases…

They also believe that phishing for phools “is the leading cause of the financial crises that lead to the deepest recessions.”

In his review Sunstein’s central message is that give and take of free markets are distorted by phisherman. They lead people to smoke by sowing doubt about current research; they lead people to underestimate the harmful effects of alcohol and overeating; they induce individuals to buy a product they don’t need or is unhealthy.

In these respects, the so-called “invisible hand” can readily go wrong. As a result, some kind of regulation is required to curb the phisherman’s power. It remains unclear what form regulatory interventions might take and how they can ever be implemented, let alone legislated given the current mood of this country.

In Akerlof and Shiller’s view “companies exploit human weaknesses not necessarily because they are malicious or venal, but because the market makes them do it.” Corporations seek to maximize their profits and in most cases will exploit every opportunity to do so.

In short, once we understand the extent to which individuals succumb to phisherman techniques, we will have yet another reason to call free market economics into question.


Strangers Drowning

What would the world be like if everyone thought like a do-gooder? What would it be like if that happy, useful blindness fell away and suddenly everyone became aware, not just intellectually but vividly, of all the world’s affliction?

Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning: Grapping with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help is a morally disturbing book. It calls into question some, if not many, of our ordinary, day-to-day behaviors.

Say we want to purchase a dress or coat that costs about $200. Do we really need another coat? How might we better spend the money? Give to a charity that delivers food and medicine to those who need it? Do the same for a charity that develops clean water programs in drought-stricken areas? Contribute to a charity working to eradicate malaria, parasite infections, or promotes literacy in developing countries?

The individuals described in MacFarquhar’s book raise such questions for every expenditure they are about to make. Most of them don’t spend the money and turn instead to a life of extreme poverty, slighting their own well-being while they to devote their life to alleviating suffering. MacFarquhar writes,

This book is about a human character who arouses conflicting emotions: the do-gooder. I don’t mean a part-time, normal do-gooder—someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who’s drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who pushes himself to moral extremity, who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy. 

She profiles the extraordinary ways these individuals undertake their moral projects. Sue and Hector Badeau, who in addition to their own two children, adopted twenty children with special needs.

Murlidhar Amte, born into a wealthy family in India, founded a leper colony in India.

Dorothy Granada, braving threats of rape, moved to Nicaragua in the 1980s to build a health clinic for women deep in the jungle.

Several individuals donated one of their kidneys to a person they didn’t know, often with unforeseen consequences. And others give away nearly everything they earn to the needy, even when it means that they go hungry at times.

MacFarquhar also discusses Peter Singer’s philosophical reasoning behind these expressions of extreme altruism. Singer argues that it is immoral to buy anything but the necessities when your money could be used to save lives and reduce the suffering of others. He would like us to consider if we would buy a cappuccino and croissant, if we knew the money was enough to buy a life-saving mosquito net in a malarial area of the world? Further, would you feel responsible for a lost life, if you bought the cappuccino and croissant?

The detail and understanding MacFarquhar displays in describing these individuals is the heart of the book. She writes, “I don’t think this question [So, is it good to try to live as moral a life as possible?] can be answered in the abstract. In the abstract, there are ideas about saints and perfection. Only actual lives convey fully and in a visceral way the beauty and cost of a certain kind of moral existence.”

Reading MacFarquhar’s book made me uneasy. It called into question many of my behaviors. I never think about how the money I spend for a Caramel Macchiato could be better used to aid a sick child in Kenya or provide a family with safe water in Uganda. The logic of thinking this way about every expenditure could drive me crazy. Instead, all I can do is give more of my resources to charities that reduce suffering. And if more and more people acted similarly, a great deal might be accomplished.

She concludes, “If everyone thought like a do-gooder, the world would not be our world any longer, and the new world that would take its place would be so utterly different as to be nearly unimaginable. … If there were no do-gooders, on the other hand, the world would be similar to ours, but worse.”


Abducting a German General

May 1944. German occupied Crete, the Greek island in the southern Aegean. In 1941 soon after the Germans captured the island from the British, the Cretan resistance movement was established.

Consisting of bands of local civilians, guerrilla fighters, and villagers from the wild mountainous interior, they inflicted heavy losses on the German forces from the very beginning.

This is the background of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation in Crete. Fermor was a member of the British Special Operation Executive (SOE) stationed in Egypt. Together with his colleague, Stanley Moss, they formulated a plan to capture the German General on Crete.

The purpose of the operation was to humiliate the Germans and boost the morale of members of the Cretan resistance. On the night of April 26 1944, Fermor and his colleagues intercepted the car carrying General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the German forces then.

Fermor, dressed as the German General, and his British colleague-chauffeur, Moss, managed to get through 22 German checkpoints in a hair-raising prelude to an 18-day effort to spirit Kreipe away on ship bound for British controlled Egypt.

"A mood of riotous jubilation broke out in the car; once more we were all talking, laughing, gesticulating and finally singing at the tops of our voices, and offering each other cigarettes, including the general."

Fermor’s description of this 18-day trek with his band of Cretan resistance fighters was the most thrilling portion of the book. Together they moved from one concealed cave to another in the mountains of Crete—eating, reading, talking, resting, trying to sleep. It was during these days that I came to appreciate how much the Cretans meant to Fermor.

the flair [they had] for friendship, company, talk, fun and music; originality and inventiveness in conversation and an explosive vitality.

After several terrifying climbs and descents and no shortage of near misses, General Kriepe, (shown in center) along with his British captors, (Moss on left, Fermor on right) was finally was finally spirited away onto a British submarine bound for Cairo.

Was the capture of Kriepe of any military or strategic value? If so, it was negligible. And it was met with German reprisals that were not pretty. But as a pure adventure story, it was hard to beat.

In 1972, long after the War, Fermor met Kriepe once again under more peaceful conditions in Athens.