How to eat 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes (and why setting targets may hold back progress*)

Mustard Yellow BeltThis month, competitors at the height of their physical prowess came together to contest their sport’s most glittering and sought after prize.

No, I’m not talking about the World Cup in Brazil. And I don’t mean the Championships at Wimbledon. The event to which I refer is Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York.

Oh, you don’t think gorging oneself on junk food is a sport? Tell that to the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the governing body behind Major League Eating (MLE). And tell it to the international (read: mainly American; some Japanese) competitors who regular enter such prestigious circuit events as La Costeña “Feel the Heat” Jalapeño Eating Challenge, the National Buffalo Wing Festival (“wing fest”), and – probably the most perfect corporate partnership ever yoked – the Alka-Seltzer U.S. Open of Competitive Eating. Major League Eating There is an apocryphal tale that tells how Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest was first held in 1916, when four men held the competition to settle an argument over who was the most patriotic amongst them. It turned out that story was just a publicity stunt conceived in recent years, as the earliest records held for the contest begin in 1972, when the winner ate 14 hot dogs in 3½ minutes. The next few contests were held sporadically, but it has been held annually since 1978. In 1979, the competition became a 12 minute competition and the winner ate 19 hot dogs in that time. The winning number eaten each year fluctuated around that number for the next 22 years, and when the 86th Annual (in reality only the 26th – apparently apocryphal tales are enough to re-write history) Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest approached in 2001, the record stood at 25⅛ HDB (hot dogs and buns – yes, the sport even has its own technical initialisms).

So when a 23-year-old, 9 stone Japanese man called Takeru Kobayashi made his debut in the contest that year, nobody could have expected what would happen: Kobayashi ate 50 HDB, nearly doubling the previous record. 28-stone circuit celebrity Eric ‘Badlands’ Booker came second with a measly 26 HDB. Kobayashi went on to win the Mustard Yellow Belt (yup, really) and $10,000 prize for the next 5 years (until Joey Chestnut beat him in 2007, eating 66 HDB. Chestnut has won every year since.)

So how did Kobayashi smash the record? How did he go about eating more than the 25⅛ standard set the previous year?

Simple: he didn’t think about eating 25⅛ hot dogs and buns. He thought about eating one. That is that he thought about how he could eat one quickly. He didn’t care for setting a target – he just set about getting better at what he was doing. Kobayashi felt that the current record was an artificial barrier and disregarded it entirely. With that approach, taking one hot dog at a time, he doubled the previous record – a figure that hadn’t changed by more than a handful of hot dogs in 22 years.

Here is ‘Freakonomist’ Stephen Dubner talking about Kobayashi’s entire approach. The part that I want to think about is the idea of ‘false limits’, which he mentions around 5 minutes in to the video.

Perhaps the fixation that other competitors had with beating the standing record resulted in a form of anchoring? Anchoring is a cognitive bias whereby we tend to rely too heavily on a given starting point when making decisions. So were the other contestants in the hot dog eating contest relying heavily on the previous record and adjusting their limits around this? Were they being held back by anchoring themselves to what they thought was achievable rather than reaching their real potential?

The slippery concept of potential is something that schools hold a lot of stock in and Tom Bennett has written about it eloquently (as ever, the bloody talented sod) here. Tom’s approach to school targets is similar to many teachers I know: “to hell with them: I expect them all to get an A”. I agree wholeheartedly, but I also think that, despite this, the pupils and I also fall foul of the bias of anchoring. I am certain that I teach to the top end and aim for the A, but I am also aware that there are certain things that I do that anchor me to that target grade.

One of these behaviours of mine is obvious when I mark the work: I have the expectation that it is going to be around the target grade, and automatically look at that band in the assessment criteria. If I think it is a higher mark, I question my marking and offer it up for instant moderation from a plethora of colleagues (knowing they won’t be anchored by the target grade).

I wonder if many pupils also anchor themselves to the target grade, not realising that their potential stretches further than what the FFT  or suchlike says is probable? Thinking through Kobayashi’s approach to realising potential, I wonder whether we might try a different approach to target setting. Rather than setting targets for what they might achieve by the end of the key stage, could we set targets as to what they need to achieve next? And when they achieve that target, they move on to the next target. So if you are working at a D grade, your target is to work at a C grade. When you break through that C grade target, your target then becomes a B. Would pupils work harder knowing their next target is actually within reach? Would the momentum of achievement carry pupils to realise potential beyond the targets which would normally be set for them? Perhaps. It may be worth trying.

Certainly in the case of competitive eaters, setting end targets was detrimental to realising true potential. Once the contestants in the hot dog eating contests began adopting Kobayashi’s approach of taking the challenge one step at a time, they began setting new records too. The current record is 69 HDB in 10 minutes. As Kobayashi says:

“I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. They decide I’ve been told this, or this is what society tells me, or they’ve been made to believe something. If every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use [my] method of thinking to everything, the potential of human beings is great, it’s huge, compared to what they actually think of themselves.”

So is setting a target actually accepting a limit? Can we learn a lesson from Kobayashi,  a lesson that is about refusing to accept limits and to see targets as false barriers?

I’d be interested to see if anyone has any different approaches to target setting. Or competitive hot dog eating, for that matter. $10,000 would be a nice summer bonus.

*obviously I am not against target-setting per se, this is more about looking at different approaches to it.


For more on anchoring and adjustment, see: ‘Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases’ by Tversky and Kahneman (1974) For more on Takeru Kobayashi, see ‘Think Like a Freak: How to Think Smarter about Almost Everything’ by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2014) Think Like a Freak

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10 thoughts on “How to eat 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes (and why setting targets may hold back progress*)”

  1. What about those with no teeth, half a tongue, stomach-fed, intolerant to gluten in bun, vegetarian, halal – all metaphorically speaking of course

    1. I’m not sure what you mean, Rachel? I get the metaphor, but don’t think what I’ve said here precludes any pupils with specific needs making progress?

  2. I enjoyed reading blog. I’m just taking it a step further in my mind: thinking how hot dog could be adapted – accessibility and high expectations for all 🙂

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