See what you want to believe in

There is quite a body of work in the psychology literature on optical and perceptual illusions and how they are influenced by seeing what you want to see. I certainly know very little about the psychology and science of this (though I have fun looking at some). I do know enough to know there is a thing called ‘cognitive illusions’ which arise when there is an interaction with assumptions about the world that lead to inferences being made about the illusion that is not there. This is why it was interesting to follow the reactions a few months back in social media, on forums and in the crankosphere blogosphere to these alleged before and after changes in a runner who took up minimalist running:


I will cut straight to the chase: can you not see that the photo is faked¹?

Watching the responses in social media, on forums and in the crankosphere blogosphere to the posting of these photos was fascinating: on one hand, those that wanted to believe were having wet dreams over this! They were gushing and singing praises of the author of the blog post and about the “proof” of barefoot/minimalism at affecting the arch height. There was almost a cyberbullying going on from some fan boys who wanted to believe and those who dare questioned the photos were stalked in social media and hounded in comments sections of blogs (some of which was quite despicable). On the other hand, there were the forum threads and social media comments ridiculing and mocking of the photos and those who fell for it. Words like ‘charlatan’ and ‘snake oil’ were being used.

Have you seen yet why its fake? Can you not see the anterior tibial muscle firing in the 2014 photo elevating the arch and lifting the first metatarsal off the ground, giving the fake impression of an improvement in the arch height? Note the prominence of the tendon from the muscle firing. The muscle is relaxed in the 2012 photo. Can you not see the apparent dorsal exotosis on the first metatarsal head because of that muscle contraction elevating the first metatarsal and raising the arch? And even if the anterior tibial muscle is not firing, then that dorsal exostosis is probably evidence of a hallux limitus or osteoarthritis in that joint. If that is the case, then the photo is “proof” that barefoot/minimalism is bad for that joint? Right? If the fan boys can make those sorts of claims, why can’t I?

I guess people see what they want to see. The cognitive illusion is obvious as those who want to believe, believe it.

What effect does minimalism/barefoot actually have on arch height? I did write previously about that: Does Barefoot Running Lead to a Higher Arch of the Foot? There is no doubt that there are anecdotes that some who take up barefoot/minimalism do develop a higher arch structure. Equally there are those that experience no changes and there are anecdotes of those who develop a lower arch structure. We know from this and this conference abstracts that there is no systematic increase in arch height in those that take up barefoot/minimalism. We know from this study and this study that there was no relationship between arch height and muscle strength and this study found no increase in arch height with muscle strengthening and this one that found that muscle strengthening actually lead to a decreased arch height. In our own data (that I reported here), when we pooled all the participants, the muscle strength parameters were not correlated to the Foot Posture Index, meaning that there was no relationship between “overpronation” and muscle strength (I will report more fully on that another time).

While this is not necessarily the most compelling evidence due to the nature of some of the publications they are, however, all are consistently pointing in the one direction and there is currently no evidence pointing in the other direction. I did offer a theoretical explanation unrelated to muscle strength about why some who take up barefoot/minimalism do experience a perceived increase in arch height.

As always, I go where the evidence takes me until convinced otherwise ….and these photos do not demonstrate an increase in arch height.

¹It was probably not deliberately faked, but it is fake nevertheless.

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7 Responses to See what you want to believe in

  1. Ellen September 19, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

    I don’t know if this has been mentioned somewhere, but to me it also looks like the photo have been made with a (deliberate?) different perfective (if that’s the correct word). The photo from 2012 is with an angle more from above, the 2014 photo is more level. This could also make you see an increase, when it’s actually a decrease in the angle of taking the photo. (If you look at the pictures beside each other, on the site mentioned, this is a bit clearer to see.)
    (I hope it makes sense, what I’m trying to say.)

    • Craig Payne September 19, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

      Yes, there is also that parallax error in the photo which I did not mention and I also did not mention the perceptual illusion that was created by making the red oval bigger!

  2. Kevin A. Kirby, DPM September 19, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    Another problem with the photo is the different lighting techniques used for both photos, which make it hard to compare the two photos. This technique is commonly used in the “before and after” photos of people using facial “anti-wrinkle” products since one lighting technique (high contrast) will accentuate wrinkles while another lighting technique (low contrast) will hide wrinkles. The difference in lighting technique makes it difficult to see exactly what the differences between these two photos.

    The bottom line is that it really doesn’t matter anyway. No scientist of any merit would even consider using static photos of a foot to prove any point about any foot biomechanics intervention. End of story.

  3. Nick Jenkins September 19, 2014 at 6:01 pm #

    You’d think that continual barefoot running, would squish the foot out, making it fatter and flatter! I’ve certainly come across a lot of folk on minimal forums who complain (or perhaps boast?) about needing wider and wider fitting shoes, but this has not been my experience. My feet haven’t really changed that much; Perhaps they look a bit stronger – I don’t know, didn’t take any before or after photos! The only change I’ve really noticed from adopting minimal/low drop footwear in 2009 is that I’ve developed a bone spur type of lump on the top of my foot over the medial cuneiform/first metatarsal joint. Although this hasn’t stopped me running, if a shoe applies too much pressure to that area it does hurt, I’d be better without it for sure. It was probably doing too much mileage in those pesky VFF’s…

  4. Michael September 19, 2014 at 8:46 pm #

    Thanks Craig. Doc Nick and his fan club really have embarrassed themselves over this.

  5. Nick Jenkins September 20, 2014 at 10:14 am #

    22 Affiliate links at the bottom of Dr Nick’s page… Hmm, not against a bit of advertising but that’s a lot, seems a good enough reason for posting junk studies I guess.

    • Craig Payne September 20, 2014 at 10:42 am #

      …and to think I got an email a few months ago telling me that I had no credibility as there were adverts on my site for running shoes … go figure!

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