A few weeks ago I was talking to an old co-worker friend from the fitness industry. We were just spit balling back and forth about who the best clients were to get. When I asked him what exactly he meant by the best clients, is it the ones who get the best results, is it the ones who are the most fun to train, is it the ones that are the easiest to train? He replied with “that is a good question, what I’m really asking is your opinion and your experience with clients who get the best results for who they are, and you know right off the get-go that it is going to be an easy experience for both people.” So for the trainer is it going to be fairly straight forward and for them as the client it is going to be very simple. It is going to be hard work, without a doubt, but it is going to be simple hard work. They are going to do what they have to do, they are going to do it as well as they can, and they are going to do it exactly as it is outlined.
Fundamentally, this is the type of question that I love answering because it draws on a lot of my experience in terms of the work that I have done in a variety of different fields along with my academic background in psychology. At its core is the question “why do people do the things that they do?”
Now we know an awful lot about how the brain works, both in terms of the physiological things that occur, and in the fifty thousand foot view of what goes on in the brain and the way people think – so the neuroscience along with the psychology. There is a boundary separating these two things. The neuroscience deals with things on a cellular level while the psychology deals with more of a narrative understanding of what goes on. Regardless of the differences, a lot is known about both things.
There is not much difference between human beings. Genetically, we are all very close to identical and the physiological processes that run under the surface are exactly the same for all people. We are coded in more or less the same way, by and large we all have the same parts of the brain and they all work in exactly the same way. And it is that way with most mammals and most living things. Neurons work the same way, more or less. So given that there is so much similarity in terms of the neuroscience, on the cellular level, why are there different outcomes for different people? Why is it not the same outcome?
That is where the psychology comes in to play. And that is ultimately the question my friend was asking. Who are your favorite clients to work with from the point of view of the ones you know are going to do well, will follow instructions and just be really easy to work with? Well, as the conversation evolved he asked if my experience backed up what I know about psychology. And that is a fair question because my experience NEEDS to back it up because if experience does not back-up what you know about a science, your experience is wrong or the science is wrong, or you have done something new that was not previously known. But one would imagine, that with enough time, over the twenty years I have been working in the industry, I would have found my way into the mean in that the average experience that I have had with people would reflect the average person.
This is more or less been what I have discovered. Some people do not get very good results. They do not get any worse, but they never move toward their goal. The stated goal of losing a few pounds or gaining some muscle, or whatever the goal is that the person decides they want, I know that there will be some people who never move towards it. They will never get worse, which is a version of improvement given that decay is the natural processes as we get older, so that is good. But when they are not moving towards their goal and improving, they are not really getting what they want.
Then there are other clients who get average results, and finally there are the outliers on the other end, those who achieve their potential in the scientifically determined length of time – there is an optimal level of progress and there are a few clients who will hit this. This is ultimately what he was getting at. When someone sits down in front of me for the consultation, and they say “hey, I need your help in doing this thing,” who do I know is going to get the results, and what makes me sure they will? And what then does the science say about these people?
Well, I will work backwards. What does the science say about people who get results? Basically it says that the people who do this collection of things for this time duration at this frequency and for this period of time (in terms of weeks or months or years), will cause physiological changes to their body that are the reflection of the physiological stimulation and the nutritional intervention. So those who get results do those specific things as prescribed and they get these specific and predictable results. For example, they do this program four times a week, every week for three months while adjusting their diet in these ways and they will gain 5 pounds of muscle and drop 5 percent in body fat.
So if that is on the surface, do X, Y and Z in this way and get this outcome, why is it that some people choose to do X, Y and Z exactly as prescribed while others will not do it as prescribed? What is the difference between these people, and the individuals who find themselves in other groups?
The science and a lot of the research that they have done with people reveals that it all comes down to consequences. On first pass, this may seem silly because consequences are punishments and punishments are about reducing particular behavioral patterns or actions. Compare this to reward, which is about increasing behavioral patterns or actions that someone takes, which is ultimately what personal trainers are asking their clients to do.
Think back onto Pavlov’s dogs that salivated at the sound of the bell when they had learned that food was given right after the bell rang. They would start to get excited when they heard the bell because they learned that the bell meant food. The outcome to this was that the dogs began to display a behavior that was not related to the bell simply because they had been reward in the past and had conditioned the reward to the sound of the bell.
On the other side of it is punishment. Whenever a physical or psychological punishment is administered to a creature in close proximity to a particular action or behavior, the frequency of them displaying that action or behavior will be reduced and overtime it will be eliminated. Now the issue with punishment is that it is not very specific meaning that whatever action the nervous system of the animal determined was what led to the punishment will get suppressed. It is not a clearly defined or a concise understanding of what exactly caused the punishment. This means that any of the behaviors that occurred in close temporal proximity to the punishment might end-up being suppressed. This leads to a situation that allows for very little testing or refinement of the connection – since the punishment MIGHT have been caused by any one of these five actions, repeating one of them MIGHT lead to a punishment so it is best to not repeat ANY of them.
This is the opposite of rewards. Rewards tend to be much more specific because there is no risk associated with testing any of the potential actions. The animal is hell-bent on finding out what exactly it has to do in order to get more rewards and it very quickly tracks down that it was this particular behavior.
What does this have to do with success with personal training clients? It has to do with the fact that consequences have a much bigger role in determining who is going to be successful. Human beings are not like any other creature. We get to enjoy things that do not happen, we get to enjoy the benefits and cost of things that are just a matter of perception, so things that we imagine and that never occur. And while any other animal will learn to avoid doing the things that cause them harm or ill-health, a human being will continue to do them.
To this later point, alcohol is good. You should never ever feed alcohol to a dog, it is not fair as it cannot consent to drink. You should not do it. But whenever they have done it they have found that the dog will drink, it will suffer hangover like effects and it will never go near alcohol again. In fact, the dog will become conditioned to avoid alcohol through single-trial learning. When it comes to alcohol, it does not like it, it hates the feeling and it knows alcohol will cause the feeling so it does not touch it ever again. Human beings will continue to do things that cause pain or that simply do not work for them over and over again in spite of the fact that they causes problems. Consequences do not mean the same thing to human beings as they do to dogs. There is a one-to-one cause and effect relationship with the dog while the consequences with human beings are impacted by a perceptual relationship. This means that the cause and effect relationship manufactured by the human could connect absolutely anything to anything else.
The science basically says that someone who shows up for consultation saying “I want to get better at X,” knowing exactly what they are seeking, is highly motivated, and they know exactly why they are doing it, will tend to get the results they are looking for. A perfect example of this class is an athlete. Athletes know exactly why they are doing what it is they are doing and are moving towards a goal. I am not going to say that they are pleasure-seeking but they are looking for something that they view as positive. They want to achieve the highest level of performance so they can increase the likelihood that they are going to win during competition. This is one group who, if they show-up in front of you, assuming you know the science to support optimal human performance and write and administer the program effectively, WILL hit their potential because they will follow the program almost perfectly. These people are seeking something. There is a huge reward in front of them and that is what they are moving towards.
This is athletes and is not most people. The results are a function of “athlete” as a verb as opposed to a noun. Most people will act like an athlete from time to time insofar as they can be very driven and work very hard, but an athlete is single-minded about what it is they want to achieve and they are single-minded about the willingness to do whatever it takes to move forward and achieve the goal.
Most people, in general, are moving away from something they do not like, which is not pleasure seeking. Human beings operate from a pain avoidance point of view when it comes to altering their physical health. The reason is fairly straight-forward, it is hard work. The easiest thing to do is nothing. Change is not doing nothing. Doing nothing is doing what we have automated, living the life that we are currently living. If we want to change our life this means we have to do something other than what is automatic, which is going to require effort. Since we know it requires effort there is a disincentive to doing it if for no other reason than this extra effort (but there are other reason too). Human beings do not really operate from the point of view of spending effort unless we absolutely need to. So we will spend energy to get pleasure, the athlete, and when it comes to everyone else who connects with a personal trainer, they will spend energy to avoid pain. This is the reason why we know someone is going to get great results when they show-up to a personal trainer with a clear idea of what it is they do not want. They are the ones who are more than likely going to do everything that is asked of them. The motivational currency of the non-athlete are consequences.
The science basically says when dealing with consequences, the consequences need to be soon, they need to be certain, and they need to be salient. If a consequence has, in the mind of the potential client, these three properties, they are going to agree to training and they are going to commit to doing what you asked them to do as hard as they can. They are going to do what it is needed to move themselves away from the consequences that are soon, certain, and salient. If the consequences do not possess one of those properties, there is a much lower likelihood of compliance to the requests that will be outlined in the program.
The “soon” is fairly straightforward. The consequence needs to be something that occurs in the very near future and the closer to now it will occur the better. Far away things may as well not be things at all because the brain really does not process things that are distant. Things that actually exist in the here and now or have greater immediacy are going to get a lot more effort and action taken towards their resolution or prevention.
Certain means the outcome needs to be inevitable and there is no possibility of an alternative outcome that is more pleasant or favorable. The reason for this is a cognitive bias called “the optimistic bias” which has a person believed the best case scenario in a situation when there are two alternatives presented. They are going to believe the best case and assume that is the one that will happen and move forward accordingly. This will happen even if there is only a 1% chance of the best case and a 99% chance of the negative or the worst case scenario. The optimistic bias has a person choose a 1% chance over a 99% chance. This defies logic but so do human beings. We are not logical operators so it is not surprising that we would do something that does not make a lot of logical sense. An inevitable consequence or one that is viewed as near certainty is going to be given a lot more weight than something that is viewed merely as a possibility.
Salience has to do with ones ability to visualize, imagine, consider, and bring to mind what the consequences are and what the ramifications will be upon their life. The more clearly a person is able to perceive the future outcome, the greater the level of salience and the more clearly their perception will be of the negative. This is very important because things that are hard to imagine may as well not be imagined at all. Something that is very clear to see, is very simple to imagine and a brain will work with it to a much larger degree. The specific reasons for this have to do with the amount of stimulation that an idea generates. Imagine you are looking at something very clearly and you are noticing everything about it. This is a huge stream of sensory data coming into your brain that it has to process and make sense of. The same thing is true with something that is very salient. You are able to imagine it clearly, able to feel the way it feels, see, hear and get a real sense of the negative outcome and this will generate a massive amount of data that your brain is going to process and operate on.
The more we pay attention to something and the higher our concentration is on what we are thinking about, the greater the cognitive ripple triggered by this stimulation. This larger amount of data will have a much larger impact on our mental processes. Anything that is salient, is clear, is easy to visualize, is easy to understand and experience will have a bigger wave of impact on the brain meaning that more of the will process it.
The end result? A much better understanding of the negative outcome will lead to much better change. This is what the science says, as long as the consequences are soon, certain, and salient, a human being is not going to have any difficulty dealing with them. They are going to treat it as important, pay their respect and take the action that is required in order to address it. However, if a consequence does not have all three of these, or is missing two of them, a person is not going to do anything about it.
Now how does this line-up with my experience? Well, it aligns perfectly.
There are three prospective clients that will show up in front of me and I will know with certainty that they will buy training and get great value out of it by following the instructions and working hard to get the results they are seeking. In each of these three cases, they match on all three of soon, certain and salient. These three types of prospects are illness, recently dumped or single, and mothers of multiple children.
This begs the question, how are the variables of soon, certain and salient present in each of these groups?
Well if you think about illness, which is illness in the person themselves or the illness of someone they care about, it is very salient. If it is in themselves, the doctor has told them that they need to do something about their blood sugar, the extra body fat, or their blood pressure, or else they are going to die or they are going to get sick. Having the experience of the doctor telling them that sickness is inevitable unless they change course makes it very clear to them. The certainty is a doctor saying to them their blood pressure is 180 over 147, which is elevated. So unless there is a good reason for it and there tends not to be a very good reason for that, it is unhealthy and is causing a lot of unnecessary stress on the blood vessels and particularly on the brain. A blood pressure like that for a sustained period of time is setting oneself up for a stroke, a brain aneurysm or any number of really devastating neurological consequences. By ignoring high blood pressure, it is only a matter of time before an artery in your brain is going to explode, and when it bleeds out, it will cause severe intellectual mental impairments and it could actually kill you.
While we do not have any real concept of what it means to be not alive, because we have always been alive, we have an idea and a very negative sense of what it is like to be dead, and of what it would be like to be intellectually impaired because of a neurological trauma that was avoidable. A cancer diagnosis or a heart attack in a loved one has the same sort of quality. We see someone we care about who is sick, which makes for a very salient experience.
The certainty and soon is the doctor telling us that we are sick or destined for a health crisis when they show us a blood test that indicates an LDL level that is very high. These are understood by proxy if we see someone who is sick because this is a clear indication that it is really happening RIGHT NOW. That is a benefit, if you will, of illness. People see the consequences and they match all three of soon, certain and salient.
The second group, the recently dumped, is a weird one but it is absolutely true when someone becomes single, if they have not made the decision themselves, once they get past the grief associated with losing the relationship, they move towards a three to nine month period of getting revenge on their partner. They do not actually want their partner to suffer physically but that they want to send them a message that they screwed up dumping them, so they get after a physical transformation and taking care of the things that they put on the back burner. They take care of their health and they take care of their fitness. Maybe it is weight loss, maybe it is gaining strength to become more mobile and active in order to do things they have never done. Whatever it is, they do these so that at some point in the future they will be able to say to their ex-partner “yeah I’m doing all that stuff now, I look great, and it wasn’t me it was you. You broke up with me and now my life is so much better. You were the liability.”
Sure, this is a story that people are telling themselves, but since there is nothing at all wrong with getting into better shape, I am not going to tell them that they might want to go to therapy to understand the role they played in the demise of their relationship. With people, and particularly people who come looking for personal training advice, they do the work, they spend the time needed to figure themselves out and then come to realize that “yeah I played a role in the breakup. I was not being the best person I could be, I was not playing all out in the relationship and while I do not appreciate the fact that the relationship ended I do sort of understand that it was not working for me therefore could not possibly have been working for them.” But when it comes to those realizations, even when they arrive after spending six to nine months improving their health and fitness, it is all good. They will have a better life, they will be happier, they will be moving themselves forward and while they may not necessarily live longer they are going to enjoy a better health span and that is a big deal. While maybe it was not an absolutely necessary journey, they have done themselves and their future selves a huge favor by improving their health.
So how do the soon, certain, and salient apply here? Soon, the consequences are actually occurring. The person has been made single and is already living in the consequences. Certain, well it is the same thing, the thing has already happened and they are already living it. Whatever that is, they are right in the thick of it because they got dumped. Salient, the same thing as well, there is nothing as clear as living an experience.
The third group is mothers of multiple children. This one is tricky and it took me a little while to figure out but really when it comes down to it, the soon, certain and salient are all exactly the same thing as the recently dumped group.
I do not know what it is like to be a mother but a lot of the mothers I have worked with have all explained it in the same way: you would do anything to improve the quality and life experience of your child knowing that your child has no awareness of what you are doing, have done or will do. They do not say that it is thankless, but they do say the child is completely oblivious to the fact that you have done anything. All they know is that they had a need and Mommy took care of it and that is the end of it.
With one child the mother is going to be able to get back to life much sooner than when she has two or three children. Children are spaced out over particular length of time and while there is no set length of time required for the mind of a mother to determine that it is time to get back to doing stuff for themselves, they are going to hit that point later if they have more children. A person could spend ten years with their primary role being mother, looking after all of the needs of the child, making sure the child is not hungry or suffering in any way that they are able to help the child avoid. Ten years to live for something other than yourself is a very long time.
The soon, certain and salient in this case? The funny thing about this group is that these things are in the past. The person has lived the soon, it is not that the consequences are going to happen in the future, it is that they are happening and they have been happening. The certain, they have lived it. Salient, the same thing, they have lived it; it is very similar to the experience of being dumped in that it is not a thing that needs to be imagined about what might happen in the future, it is a thing that has been happening for a period of time.
If a mother shows up saying “you know, I’ve decided that I want to get some training,” a switch has flipped in their head because they have come to make the decision that they are going to be investing in themselves for the first time in a very long time. There is an opportunity cost associated with doing it – the opportunity cost is taking time away from their children, which has been their focus for the last decade – so they do not end up sitting across from a trainer, asking for help with improving their fitness unless they have actually done the benefit cost analysis. They are willing to say the opportunity cost of continuing to ignore their future is too great so therefore they have to do something. They know what they are sacrificing – time with their children – so they are going to make the most of their time by following every instruction and by trying as hard as they can while they are working out before returning to their role of mother, which remains the main focus of their life.
The beauty about this group in particular is that they are there for themselves in the moment, and in the future. The recently dumped the people are excited but they are there for themselves in the future – the moment they get to show off to their ex. The same applies to their illness group, they are there to avoid something awful in the future. The mother group is there to create something good in the present moment and something in the future or to avoid something awful in the future. They are going to be fully present in the present moment because they need to spend time investing in themselves.
This is how my experience has lined up with the science. When the consequences have the property of being soon, certain and salient, action is much more likely than when they are far away, hard to imagine or unlikely. When the consequence have either occurred in the past, are currently occurring or are about to happen in the near future, there is a very good chance that a person will get great results because they are going to follow the advice that is given. Since professional personal trainers only dispense advice that is scientifically valid, it is very easy to come up with the prescription that helps these people. Do this set of things in this way for this length of time with this frequency over time and you will get these results, and that is really all there is to it. Anyone else who shows up and is sitting in front of you but is there having no relationship to the consequences – there is no soon, certain and salient in what they are talking about – the chances of success are much lower.
Now there are other people who will get great results. Maybe they love working out or maybe they are really powerful at working hard to achieve a future benefit or to avoid a future cost that is not very well defined in their mind. I have worked with people who are not athletes and do not belong to one of the three groups outlined above and who do not have a clear and vibrant picture of the consequences, but who get after it like there is nothing else in their life that is more important. However, the possibility of someone doing the necessary work without the soon, certain and salient being checked off is dramatically lower.
After thinking about it for a few moments, my friends experience did support what I was saying.
Now the objective of this post is to explain that whenever you are doing a consultation or just having a conversation with someone, I do not think it is wise for you to try and point out the consequences of their actions and the inevitable future that they are moving into order to trigger an emotional response and to then capture them in a training program. There is nothing wrong with telling them the truth and helping them see that the destination if they continue down the path they are on is not a very great place to be. That is a fine thing to do, just so long as you do not immediately capture them in a training program for that reason. They will need to spend some time with the information that has been revealed in order for their brain to fully reorganize and understand that “oh my God I’m actually cruising towards bad health and an eventual health crisis, and I should probably do something to make sure that it doesn’t go down like that.”
Triggering these thoughts and emotions in someone and then selling to them without giving them the time to process and integrate that information, can only lead to someone dealing with the consequences of a rash decision as opposed to anything else. Whenever you are having a conversation with someone who is sitting in front of you, unless they are spontaneously hitting on the three soon, certain, and salient in terms of the consequences, or they are an athlete, do not try to trigger the negatives about what could happen if they stay the course and do not try to trigger the positives of what could happen if they change course. Simply talk with them and try to figure out why they decided to have a conversation with you. If they are able to come up with the reasons why they are there and you are not able to convince yourself that these reason are not really something that they spent much time thinking about or that they are not ready to deal with, they are probably ready for training so sell it to them. But if they do not have a clear reason why they are there or a soon, certain or salient in terms of the consequences of them continuing to live the life the way they are living it, it behooves you to just have a conversation to help them figure out the reason why they are there. If they do not know and you still sell to them that then becomes the thing that was done to them.
You will have manipulated them into buying something they did not want.
But on the other hand if you help them unpack exactly why they are there and really help them dig in on their motivations and all of the other things, and they are crystal clear that “yes this is what I want and I want it for these reasons,” sell them the training because they are not going to be upset at you for it. They are going to thank you for it because you will be aligned with them as a partner and help them move towards their goals.
When someone comes and sits down in front of me and says “hey I am looking for your help,” and I am able to track in and find out the soon, certain and salient in terms of the consequences they are hoping to avoid, or if the person is an athlete, or if they are a member of one of the three groups – someone who has seen or is experiencing illness, someone who is recently single, or a mother who has decided to focus some of her time on herself for a change – it is a sure thing. It is not going to be easy money, it is going to be work but they are going to more than willing to put the effort in and the partnership is going to be a win-win.