Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
One new study suggests it might be making us angsty.
If you keep an eye on your wearable fitness tracker’s daily stats, you might be more inclined to scale the subway stairs instead of riding the escalator. Or you might feel like you’re wearing a shackle, and find yourself glowering at people who are clocking more exercise.
Last year, one survey found that a third of consumers who bought a mobile fitness tracker ditched it within six months. Maybe they got tired of wearing them. Maybe they got a lot healthier (although a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that there’s not necessarily much overlap between data collection and behavioral changes). Or maybe folks got mopey whenever they looked at how their stats measured up to those of other users.
One of my colleagues—a fellow writer—bought wearable trackers for herself and her mom, then quickly realized that she’d made a big mistake. Her mom is a dance teacher: her job is to move. My friend spends all day hunched over her computer. There was no way she could keep up. It ended up feeling like a decidedly unhealthy competition, she told me—and a really lopsided one. She’s taking a break from the tracking.
Self-deprecating competitiveness has given rise to a cottage industry of bizarre ways to trick your tracker. One satirical take comes from two video artists who created a tutorial for fooling the device into registering other movements as steps. Their suggestions include strapping the tracker to a drill, pendulum, car wheel, dog, or 3D printer. (It sort of seems easier to just walk a little?)
Social media can be a megaphone for broadcasting your own successes—and those announcements may make your friends feel pretty crappy. In 2013, a German study found that one in three Facebook users felt worse after scrolling through friends’ photos, especially ones that depicted vacation scenes. “The most common cause of Facebook frustration came from users comparing themselves socially to their peers,” Time reported. The same logic could apply to fitness trackers that splash statistics across Facebook or Twitter. A friend who trumpets that he strode 15,000 steps could make you feel ashamed of your more slothful 8,000.
A new study forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research teases out another reason why wearable trackers can make us cranky. Jordan Etkin, a business professor at Duke, analyzed how tracking activities can actually make us enjoy them less. She reports that it’s a matter of incentives and motivation. When we know that our walking habits are being recorded, for instance, we’re more likely to walk, but we also take less pleasure in strolling. Etkin argued that it’s because the act of measuring the output “makes enjoyable activities feel more like work, which reduces their enjoyment.”
To test the hypothesis, Etkin coordinated six studies involving tracking various activities, such as reading and walking. In one, 95 college students were asked to choose whether or not to wear a pedometer all day. Some could see the step count, while others could not. At the end of the day, they were asked to report how much they enjoyed walking. Those who could see the steps ticking up throughout the day did end up walking more, but reported less enjoyment.
The results suggest, Etkin wrote, that “measurement reduced enjoyment even among people who chose (i.e., opted-in) to be measured.” Which is to say: even when we think we want answers, the results might make us crabby.
The takeaway isn’t that measuring activities is inherently bad. It can be a useful tool for gauging habits. Etkin’s work reminds us, though, that tracking our behaviors can change our perception of them. Is it helpful to keep a record of how much water we drink throughout the day, or how fitfully we sleep? Sure. But when it comes to activities we indulge in just because they make us happy, we might prefer to leave them uncounted.
“For activities people do for their own sake,” Etkin writes, “it may be better not to know.”