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Fri Nov 30, 2012, 06:59 AM

Study: Exercising With Physically Superior Partners Makes You Better—Even if They Aren't Real


PROBLEM: The Köhler effect occurs when weaker individuals, when placed on a team, perform better than they would on their own. Given time constraints and our general preference for doing things online, being able to harness the phenomenon's power through technology could potentially help motivate individuals to exercise more, and get more out of their workouts.

METHODOLOGY: Brandon Irwin, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University, gathered 58 female college students who rated their own physical fitness as average. In a pre-trial, the women rode exercise bikes on their own for six sessions. They were allowed to stop whenever they chose. Next, they worked out for six more sessions with a partner. They were told the partner was video-conferencing in from another lab, but she was really just a looped video of a person riding a bike -- that they were led to believe was better than them.

Because it would be a shame not include these details, here's how the con was carried out: The fake partner's name was given as either "Stacey" or "Laura." The experimenter would introduce the subjects to Stacey/Laura over Skype, then asked "her" to introduce herself -- secretly pressing a play button as he did so, so that the recording of Stacey/Laura would appear to respond to him. Stacey/Laura would announce that "she was a sophomore, undecided on a major, not sure about career plans, and liked to watch American Idol and reruns of Friends." Lest the participants start thinking that Stacey/Laura was kind of dull, the experimenter would then tell the subject that Stacey/Laura had lasted longer than her during the pre-trial. To really sell the con, Stacey/Laura was taped with different clothing and hairstyles for each session.

In some of the experiments, the participants just rode alongside Stacey/Laura. Others were told that they were on a team, and that the team score would be based on the time of whoever stopped first. Stacey/Laura, because she was really just a looped video, never stopped first.

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