Debunking Myths: Why Just Saying “You’re Wrong” Doesn’t Work

talk to the experts by Mai Le licensed under Creative Commons
talk to the experts by Mai Le licensed under Creative Commons

Fitness and health is an industry that is particularly susceptible to misinformation. Myths and misconceptions run rampant from people looking to provide the next quick fix. As a personal trainer, your job is to debunk myths and to help your clients reach their goals the right way.

A Profitable Industry

For a trillion dollar industry, people will do anything to capitalize on the desires of others.

There is a vast amount of information available. Everything is just a quick Google search away. It can be difficult for even a knowledgeable personal trainer to know what is right and what is wrong, let alone a client.

Compounding the issue are high profile “experts” who are active in the media. These individuals have millions fans who trust their every word. Yet, they don’t hesitate to recommend products that are not proven to be effective.

The Problem

When it comes to debunking myths, the evidence is stacked against you. Once the seed of misinformation is planted, it can become extremely difficult to remove.

When done incorrectly, debunking can actually reinforce the false beliefs. In some cases, these beliefs can even be strengthened. This is known as the backfire effect.

According to The Debunking Handbook by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, there are three different ways that trying to counter misinformation can backfire.

Familiarity

Repetition sticks. Simply mentioning the myth can lead to the information being ingrained. The more often you hear something, the more you believe that it is true.

This is why misinformation spreads so quickly these days and is hard to extinguish. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter allows you to direct information to millions of people in an instant. This is a dangerous weapon when held by a powerful but misinformed leader.

The familiarity effect is evident with the debate about eggs. It seems like an article about the benefits of eggs is written every month. This would not happen if people didn’t still believe that eggs are bad for you.

To combat this effect, any attempts to debunk a myth should put an emphasis on the truth. Tell your clients how eggs would help them reach their goals. Give them facts about the benefits of eggs.

Overkill

The overkill effect occurs when too many facts are used to debunk myths. The bombardment of information does not allow one to properly process the evidence.  People end up believing the myth because it takes too much energy to try and understand the truth.

The solution is to take the “less is more” approach. Facts should be concise and as easy to understand as possible. Rather than listing off 20 reasons why eggs are great, choose 5 that are most applicable to your client.

Worldview

Of the three backfire effects, the worldview effect is the toughest to navigate. This effect pertains to individuals who have a firm grasp on their beliefs. Confronting these individuals with counter-arguments, no matter how strong, strengthens their beliefs.

You will recognize these individuals as those who belong to groups with solid identities. People who follow the Paleo diet would be the most obvious and current example.

* note – Not that the Paleo diet is inherently bad for you. It’s the arguments that people make to support the diet that I have issue with.

So how do you change the mind of someone who identifies so strongly with their beliefs?

One way is to frame the information in a way that doesn’t attack their worldview.

For instance, grains are a big No for strict Paleo followers. Telling them that grains are not bad for you will fall on deaf ears. But, explaining that sprouting grains makes them more easily digestible can be effective. Sprouting grains essentially turns them into a live plant. Plants are a big Yes in the Paleo book.

Steps to Debunk Myths

Now that we know what to avoid, here are some more steps to follow to effectively debunk myths.

  1. Emphasize the core facts. Remember not to use too many, though. Choose no more than 5 things that are most relevant to your client.
  2. Use warnings when addressing myths. Before you repeat a myth, provide caution about the upcoming information begin false.
  3. Provide and alternative explanation. You must fill their false information gap with new, correct information. If you don’t, your clients may continue to believe the wrong information. To them, having the wrong explanation is better than no explanation.
  4. Choose your battles. You can’t win them all. Instead of risking a bad relationship just to prove a point, focus on areas that you can help clients change.

The relationship that you have with your clients is built on trust. This trust should be maintained to do your job effectively. Knowing when and how to deliver information is just as important as sharing it.

Sign up for our free 5 day mini course