This post was inspired by a conversation I recently had with a MediaLAB student. It made me think about the effect of quantifying yourself on others, perhaps those that do not quantify themselves, but are possible victims of your self-knowledge. Here, I would like to discuss two perspectives: First, what impact can a quantified-everyone have on us? Second, as described, what effect does it have on me as non-quantifier when everybody around me is?

The Quantified Self, a lot has been said about it in the past years, mainly about the benefits for living a healthier life, by measuring (parts of) the big five: 1. Physical activity and sports; 2. Food & drinks; 3. Sleep & rest; 4. Stress; 5. Social interaction. Its focus on improving your life based on self-knowledge is an appealing one. Who doesn’t want to improve?? Reading some of the experiences that QS’ers have shared on the Internet, I might be inclined to conclude that it actually does improve one’s life: they appear to be more active, eat better, are more conscious of sleeping patterns, stress levels, etc. etc. However, these people only form a very small experimental, early-adapting group. What will happen when (almost) everyone will be quantifying him- or herself?

The impact of QS on how we feel and make others feel

I foresee a couple of possible effects:

 1. The You-Haven’t-Been-Quantified! effect

Perhaps you have children, but there was a time that you didn’t. And perhaps, most of your friends did at one time and you didn’t. Remember how awkward you felt when they all started talking about poop, diapers, first teeth and how tired they felt? Right, they had the ‘numbers’, the ‘insights’. You didn’t. It may be a long-shot, but there may be a stronger effect on the non-quantified than there is now on those who are not connected through Internet/ Facebook etc. This is because they will seem in control, and people always feel bad when others appear to be in control compared to them.

Now imagine all your neighbors quantifying themselves and their surroundings, and you don’t…

2. The Everyone-And-Everything-Around-You-Is-Quantified and that Says-Something-About-You effect

Imagine that you own an island in the pacific. It is practically unknown to mankind, and you can live your quiet life. Obviously, when you would get a map, you could discover it, but most people don’t. Now, imagine more and more boats are passing by with GPS. And those boats are reporting everything they see around them. People are following the boats, and suddenly, data collectors of your island and its surroundings, surround your quiet little island. Now people now how much water you may have stored on your island (because the boats measure how much it rains around your island), how much sun you are getting (they also measure that), when the supermarket boat arrives (yep, GPS) and you get new supplies, etc., etc. Now imagine all your neighbors quantifying themselves and their surroundings, and you don’t…

A sense of personal responsibility for undesirable conditions and events is harmful

3. Feeling control is not always the best – effect

Having the data provides you with knowledge to know better what to do, with fewer options to choose from, right? Indeed, having more choice does not necessarily indicate better, as it has been shown that having limited choice is intrinsically more motivating than having a lot.  And yes, this gives you a sense of more control. Additionally, research has shown that a sense of control has a beneficial effect on health and well being[1].

Feeling responsible for the conditions and events in your life has been found to be universally beneficial. However, studies on the effects of guilt, self-esteem and self-derogation, suggest that a sense of personal responsibility for undesirable conditions and events is harmful. Several studies in the early nineties found that the biggest sense of control is not the best, possibly in relation to a feeling of guilt.[2] You might be able to say that in that relation, ‘knowing’ sometimes has larger impact than ‘not-knowing’.

For me, a good example of this is the branch of the Quantified Self movement, the Quantified Baby. Even though this title raises the hairs on my back, I do understand its aims

Parents are often told by health professionals to record daily activities about their babies in the first few months, such as feeding times, sleeping times and nappy changes. This is useful for both the parent (used to maintain a schedule and ensure they remain organised) and for the health professional (to make sure the baby is on target and occasionally to assist in diagnosis). For quantified self, knowledge is power, and knowledge about oneself easily translates as a tool for self-improvement. The aim for many is to use this tracking to ultimately become better parents. Some parents use sleep trackers because they worry about sudden infant death syndrome[3]

Yes, becoming better parents, being able to care better… who doesn’t want that? And OK, you don’t have to write all those burps, poops, pees, bites, sips, etc. anymore in your green little books, but how about all the other data, how will knowing make you feel? I remember that the fluctuations in weight of our daughter in the first six months drove my wife and me mad, and we actually thought we could control it by changing our behavior according to the change in ‘data’. You can guess: it had a big counter effect. Why? It made us nervous, and nerves never work. It made us feel guilty, affected our self-esteem as parents and we felt a personal responsibility for the undesirable conditions that we phased.

There will be an impact of measuring your emotional state, stress levels, etc., because you won’t be able to control the implications. Others will…

4. Sharing control is not always the best – effect

Another example of control: Now, from the perspective of the other. Let’s say you just broke up with your girlfriend, and you come to work trying to mask your sadness/ grief. However, at the end of a meeting, your colleague concludes by expressing his (genuine) concern for your well being. People often find themselves in these situations, where they want to conceal negative affect in accordance with conversational norms. However, sometimes others may be able to detect the concealed emotion.[4] This detection often happens by ‘leaking’ covert feelings through less controllable non-verbal channels. Concealing the emotions and feelings may be the reason of possible negative implications for the actor. Think about being considered ‘unprofessional’ or ‘exaggerating’ which may affect being considered a trustworthy and valuable colleague.

I think QS may have a similar effect, especially when it will be shared, or is expected to be shared (remember how you feel inclined to be available after office hours, due to new technology: email, whatsapp, etc.?). Especially because of this, you can imagine that there will be an impact of measuring your emotional state, stress levels, etc., because you won’t be able to control the implications. Others will evaluate your data and there is where self-knowledge ends and judgments by others start.

Let’s make it clear, I am not negative about the QS movement or its applications. I think it is always good to look beyond when it comes to impact. As always, it is not the technology that will push the success of it, it is how we deal with the impact of that technology.  Happy tracking!


[1] The sense of control as a moderator of social class differences in health and well-being. Lachman, Margie E.; Weaver, Suzanne L.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 74(3), Mar 1998, 763-773.

[2] Mirowsky, J. and Ross, C.E. (1990)

[3] Source: Wikipedia