Episode 37. Motivation and Fitness Trackers, Calorie Trackers and Other Quantification Perils

Jan 2, 2017 | 0 comments

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Show Notes

Scott’s wanted to talk about two recent studies on the perils or “hidden costs” of personal quantification for awhile now. This includes things like calorie trackers and calorie monitors, step trackers, heart-rate monitors, gadgets, fitness apps, and more.

Jordan Etkin, “The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification”

This is from the Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 42, 2016. [link]

It was also reported on in The Atlantic [link]

  • Etkin did six experiments on tracking and quantification, all of which manipulated the subjects in terms of whether they had access to some kinds of tracking or were measured in some way. So when subjects got feedback about how fast they were coloring, they did it faster, but enjoyed it less, and showed less creativity.
  • From the research article’s intro: “This research examines unintended negative consequences of personal quantification. I propose that while measuring output can increase how much of an activity consumers do (e.g., the number of steps they take over a day), such measurement can simultaneously undermine intrinsic motivation” (p. 967)
  • In an experiment on reading, Etkin re-framed the act of reading as either “work” or “fun.” For the people who were manipulated such that the reading was framed as fun, when you added in measurement on top of that, it decreased enjoyment. But for the subjects who thought of reading as work, adding in the measurement didn’t decrease motivation or anything. This basically jives with the idea that one of the problems with measurement is it turns a fun activity into work.
  • As Scott pointed out, it can be even worse if it turns a fun activity not just into work, but into a form of critical, negative self-judgment.
  • Etkin also makes a point that measurement doesn’t affect enjoyment if it is integral to the activity. E.g., a video game where you have HP points or you’re going for a high score or whatever. Or gambling. Or a sports game.
  • Danger for personal trainers: “Likewise, personal trainers are increasingly using personal quantification devices to track clients’ calorie consumption and energy expenditures. If doing so reduces how much healthy behaviors are enjoyed, this practice may hamper long-term clientele” (p. 981)

“Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss”

Published in Journal of the American Medical Association, Sep 20, 2016 [Link]

It was also reported on in NPR [Link]

  • From the abstract: “Objective: To test the hypothesis that, compared with a standard behavioral weight loss intervention (standard intervention), a technology-enhanced weight loss intervention (enhanced intervention) would result in greater weight loss.”
  • From the abstract: “Conclusions and Relevance: Among young adults with a BMI between 25 and less than 40, the addition of a wearable technology device to a standard behavioral intervention resulted in less weight loss over 24 months.”
  • From NPR article: “Ultimately, Patel says, these devices are most effective when the people using them are already dedicated to tracking their fitness.” If you’re a nerd who’s into fitness (like Mike) and you go out and buy a fitbit, it won’t kill all your motivation.

Avoiding the Danger

  • Mike’s question: How does it happen? Scott talked a lot about how clients go from a “honeymoon” period to feeling imprisoned, as though they “have” to track this, or track that, and if not, their world will fall. but how does that happen?
  • You avoid it by being real: you won’t gain fat “just because” you stop tracking this or that. You can still have some control of your intake without an app or a tracker. You can still know how your exercise is going without a pedometer.
  • Seek out the benefits: go outside and enjoy the meditative aspect of a walk, instead of the “I have to burn X calories to be ‘on track'” mindset.
  • Know thyself, and catch thyself… and keep it real.

Links & Resources

“The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification” by Jordan Etkin

“The Quantified Welp” by Robinson Meyer (article on Etkin’s studies in The Atlantic)

“Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss” Jakicic, John M. et al. in JAMA.

“Weight Loss On Your Wrist? Fitness Trackers May Not Help” by Erin Ross (NPR article on JAMA article)