Here’s an interesting random fact related to marathon finishing times: they’re not random. They tend to cluster around 30 minute marks, providing evidence “that the majority of runners think about their performance relative to round numbers.” As you can see from the included graph showing the number of finishers crossing the finishing line at various times, this study of over 9 million marathon finishers demonstrated a “lumpy distribution of finishing times, with bunching just ahead of round numbers. For example, 51.4% more runners finished in the minute just under 3 hours than the minute just over 3 hours. ”
The authors of this analysis found that the bunching around round numbers is not attributable to external benefits (such as reaching a time goal needed to qualify for the Boston Marathon), since it occurs across all timepoints. Nor is it attributable to individual marathon perks (e.g., availability of pacers and pace groups) since it occurs in large and small marathons of disparate resources. Rather, it seems to be driven by planning and pacing, effort close to the finish line (desperate sprints in the last few kilometers), and spontaneous goal formation (runners who realize they are close to a specific time cutoff and and spontaneously decide to “go for it”).
Why is this so interesting? Well, when you think about it, the marathon distance is in itself very random: 42.195 kilometers, or 26 miles and 385 yards. Imposing a specific round-number time goal upon such a random distance is largely meaningless for performance. For example, the pace needed to finish in 3 hours 59 minutes is largely indistinguishable (only ~4 seconds/mile faster) from the pace needed to finish in 4 hours and 1 minute; a runner who finishes just under 4 hours is not a better runner than one who finishes just over 4 hours. But runners aren’t alone! The use of round numbers as illogical reference points for goal-setting behavior is seen all over the place. In a 2011 research paper, authors found that “professional baseball players modify their behavior as the season is about to end, seeking to finish with a batting average just above rather than below .300” and “high school students are more likely to retake the SAT after obtaining a score just below rather than above a round number.”
So why do we set these arbitrary, round number goals? Authors of the original research article hypothesize that goals are answers to the “self-control” problem: that we set round-number goals in an attempt to control external agents and address uncertainty. They provide order and meaning in an often uncontrollable and uncertain world where distinguishing performance and success can be very difficult.
While that sounds useful, The Upshot, a column in the New York Times, published a great article describing negative economic ramifications of this type of behavior: arbitrary goals can lead us astray when it comes to situations in which flexible decision-setting may be more appropriate, such as buying and selling houses, judging ourselves fairly and equitably and investing in stocks.
So what to do? Goals, no matter how arbitrary and meaningless, have utilitarian purpose for motivating us, ordering our efforts, and giving us quantitative benchmarks with which to judge our progress. But they backfire when they cause us to ignore other types of behavioral actions which may be more appropriate for a certain situation…such as feeling the joy of crossing the finish line rather than the disappointment of running 10 (small, trivial, meaningless) seconds faster.