From the Archives: The Making of a Tough Mudder

This piece was originally posted in December 2011, about 1 month after I completed my first Tough Mudder. I’m re-posting it now, for no reason other than the fact that I completed my second Tough Mudder today (pictures immediately below), so it seems appropriate!









In November 2011, I participated in my first Tough Mudder.

Officially billed as a “hardcore, 10-12 mile obstacle course designed by British Special Forces to test your all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie” (and unofficially billed as “probably the toughest event on the planet”), you can imagine that it was hard to stand there, jumping up and down to keep warm (did I mention that this took place in November…in Indiana?!) without thinking about all of the social psychology going on around me.

The Power Of The Foot-In-The-Door

First of all, when thinking about a challenge like this, it begs the question…even after we had all made the decision to attempt the course, what exactly compelled us to attack some of the crazier obstacles? After all, even at the very beginning of the challenge, we were all assured that we could skip any obstacles that made us uncomfortable. I’m sure that many of us went in fully expecting to skip some of the scarier sounding ones…like the one that required running through fire, perhaps, or the obstacle that required a mad sprint through a field of 10,000 volt live wires.

I’ve previously blogged about the concept of reciprocal concessions, otherwise known as the “door-in-the-face” technique, whereby you can get someone to comply with a smaller request by initially requesting something larger; once they turn down the larger request, they are more likely to feel “guilted” into agreeing to the smaller thing.

However, there’s another, quite different method of increasing compliance: the foot-in-the-door technique. According to this tactic, once you’ve got your “foot in the door” by making an initial, small request, people are more likely to continue agreeing to successively larger requests. For example, people who were asked to place a small card in one of their household windows about supporting safe driving were subsequently more likely to willingly put a large sign in support of safer driving in their front yards — a considerably more intrusive request. As the logic goes, once you’ve gotten someone to agree to something small, they are more likely to agree to much larger requests.

How does this play into the Tough Mudder psychology? Well, as I mentioned before, all participants are assured that we can skip any obstacles that we want or drop out at any time. However, aside from some of the water obstacles (which many of us skipped due to the high prevalence of hypothermia on our Tough Mudder day), I didn’t see many participants actually skipping anything…despite how easy (and accepted) it would have been to do so. I even found myself not wanting to skip any of the obstacles, despite my vehement claims beforehand that I would be skipping plenty of them. It’s not hard to see how foot-in-the-door logic might apply here: Once you’ve done a few, smaller obstacles, you’re probably much more likely to attempt the larger obstacles.

Even if that means you end up running through a field of live wires at the end.

The Power of Injunctive Norms

Looking at the obstacles, it’s fairly clear that most of them cannot be completed alone.

After all, one obstacle involved scaling a series of 12-foot walls with no ledges, footholds, or ropes.

For most of us, it would literally be impossible to complete this obstacle without help. And sure enough, throughout the entire experience, every participant was more than willing to turn around and offer help to their fellow Mudders…even though they were complete strangers. Why exactly was this cooperative phenomenon so common?

Most people know about the concept of norms: The set of behaviors that are generally considered to be “normal” or “acceptable” in a group of people. However, what most people may not realize is that there are two different types of norms — descriptive and injunctive — and that the latter are generally much more effective at influencing people’s behavior.

Descriptive norms, much like they sound, generally operate by describing the typical behaviors of a group. For example, if most of the women in a given room happen to be wearing high heels, or most of the men are wearing suits, these facts alone constitute descriptive norms. There is nothing saying that these items of clothing should be worn, merely that for the most part, they are.

Injunctive norms, on the other hand, take other people’s approval or disapproval into account. In other words, what should you be wearing in that room? If all women walking into that room should be wearing high heels, or all men should be wearing suits, and anyone walking in wearing anything otherwise would be judged and scorned by the rest of the people there, these rules constitute injunctive norms because they describe what other people find acceptable or unacceptable.

Before every Tough Mudder, the group of participants (or “Mudders”) gather at the start line to recite the Tough Mudder pledge.

I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge.
I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time.
I do not whine – kids whine.
I help my fellow Mudders complete the course.
I overcome all fears.
Tough Mudder Pledge

The Mudders waiting at the start line may not realize this, but this pledge is setting a very powerful injunctive norm. What it’s really saying is that all Mudders are expected to help each other, cooperate, and act like adults — and anyone who doesn’t isn’t really a true “Mudder.” If it were merely descriptive, the pledge would say something along the lines of, “Most Mudders tend to put teamwork and camaraderie before their course times.” By requiring all Mudders to pledge that they will follow these norms of camaraderie, cooperation, and maturity, the organization sends a very clear message: This is what is expected of you. If you do not act this way, you will face immense disapproval.

As far as injunctive norm-setting goes, this one tends to work like a charm.

“I saw lines of ten people, dragging each other up miles of hills…strangers helping each other out, like it was, like they had been doing it for years.”

This picture on the right is from the Tough Mudder website, and the caption comes straight from a Mudder’s mouth in one of the promotional videos. That’s the power of injunctive norms; all it takes is one pledge for people to act like they’ve known each other forever, and cooperate accordingly.

The Power of Misattributed Arousal

Image from the TM website. My apologies if you see this and you are not actually a couple.

I’ve previously blogged about misattribution of arousal, the process by which physiological arousal (a.k.a. the physical increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and/or sensory alertness, typically caused by something like fear, danger, or physical activity) can be “misattributed” to nearby people and misinterpreted as romantic attraction.1 Thus, it will come as no surprise that something like a Tough Mudder is probably awesome for your relationship. Want your boyfriend or girlfriend to feel intense feelings of love and desire for you? Put yourself through a grueling, 12-mile obstacle course! Once your heart rate has skyrocketed, it shouldn’t be long before those warm and fuzzies start to kick in.

But there’s a benefit here for your relationship that extends beyond simple arousal misattribution. According to research by Arthur Aron, “novel, arousing activities” are quite possibly the best thing that you can do for your relationship. Based on several correlational studies, couples who reported frequently engaging in “novel, arousing activities” together (however they chose to define “novel” and “arousing”) were also more likely to report higher levels of relationship satisfaction. However, perhaps more convincingly, this result was experimentally confirmed as well. Couples who were randomly assigned to participate in a novel arousing task in the lab (i.e. making their way around a gymnasium-constructed obstacle course on their hands and knees…while Velcro-ed together!) not only reported being happier in their marriages than those who participated in no activity or a more boring activity, they even seemed happier to other people who observed how those couples interacted with each other before and after they engaged in the task. The researchers suggest that this effect is caused by the impact of the activities on the couples’ feelings of boredom; by participating in novel, arousing activities together, the couples successfully staved off feelings of boredom, which made them feel (and act) happier together.2

So, anyone who completed a Tough Mudder with his/her significant other was probably onto something: Do something novel and exciting together, and bask in the glow of your newfound relationship happiness.

Oh…did I not mention who I did the Tough Mudder with?

Alright. So maybe I’m a bit biased towards that particular research finding.

All pictures, quotes, and videos are from the Tough Mudder website, with the exception of two personal photographs. If anyone would like for me to take any of these pictures down, please e-mail me and let me know.

Also, World’s Toughest Mudder, a 24-hour endurance test for the top qualifiers from every Tough Mudder race, happened this weekend! If you are interested in following it, click here to read about how it all went down.

1. Jason Goldman at The Thoughtful Animal has also blogged about misattribution of arousal, as has Amie Gordon at Psych Your Mind.

2. Further discussion of research on the relationship between boredom and relationship satisfaction can be found in another recent post by Amie Gordon at Psych Your Mind.

Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H.B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51 (3), 629-36 PMID: 13286010

Aron A, Norman CC, Aron EN, McKenna C, & Heyman RE (2000). Couples’ shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78 (2), 273-84 PMID: 10707334

Freedman JL, & Fraser SC (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4 (2), 195-202 PMID: 5969145

One response to “From the Archives: The Making of a Tough Mudder

  1. Pingback: Tough Mudders and Feet in the Door | A Series of Unfortunate Events

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