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  • There’s a time and a place for quantification
  • There’s a time and a place for quantification
    Fitbit (2016) ©

How many? The science of quantification

Technology enables us to record and track data on almost any aspect of life – from diet to sleep, productivity to fertility. But what are the implications? Canvas8 sat down with Dr. Jordan Etkin of Duke University to find out how quantification can sometimes suck the fun out of life.

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Today, technology enables you to record and track data on almost any aspect of your life – your steps, your diet, your sleep, your media habits, your productivity, and even your fertility. A full 69% of US adults track at least one health metric. We think that if we can find out more about our behaviour, we’ll know more about ourselves; and, of course, that’s appealing. But while we’re obsessed with our ability to measure – and, in turn, improve – we haven’t really stopped to ask what the consequences might be.

Just as people worry that endlessly recording on smartphones removes from the in-the-moment experience of daily life, research suggests that measuring everything we do could affect our enjoyment and experience of these activities. Quantification may see us run farther, but do we really want that at the expense of fun?

Canvas8 sat down with Dr. Jordan Etkin, Professor of Marketing at Duke University and author of ‘The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification’, to understand the consequences of quantifying our behaviour might be, and figure out whether there’s a time and a place to quantify our experiences.


Why did you study quantification?
A few years ago, I gave my father a Fitbit for the holidays. He likes walking and being healthy, but he’s also an engineer and likes numbers, so I thought it’d be a perfect gift. And then I started getting these reports from him, with all of his data, his outputs. Steps, and stairs climbed, and how he was progressing, and how much more he was doing from one day to another. 

It started to feel like a job for him. This was supposed to be a fun gift, but this activity that hadn’t had meaning before was feeling more like work. So that became the start of this project – can quantifying things that are fun, or weren’t work to start with, make them feel more productive, or suck the fun out of them? How would that affect our behaviour if we were to stop quantifying?

Measuring something fun can make it feel like work Measuring something fun can make it feel like work
Fitbit (2016) ©

What does previous research tell us?
In terms of understanding why quantification has this effect, I turned to old work in social psychology that studies how providing external rewards for fun behaviours undermines their enjoyment.

The classic work in this area is the study of children; if you take kids who like colouring, and you give them rewards for colouring – for being a good colourer they get a little star, for example – the behaviour becomes less about the fun of it, but about getting a reward. If the reward is no longer given, the kids then colour less.

By giving someone a reward, you make a fun behaviour about something other than itself. Something that was intrinsically motivated has become extrinsically motivated. The source of motivation and the reason to do it moves from your enjoyment of the activity to being about what it provides for you.

What are the implications of incentivising education? What are the implications of incentivising education?
Howard County Library System, Creative Commons (2014) ©

What did you learn from your research?
The first study was colouring. I gave lab participants a colouring book and a pack of crayons, told them they would colour for ten minutes, and provided them with a cover story. Half of them were told that after every shape that they coloured, they should click their mouse, and that would keep track of how much they’d coloured. Every time they coloured a shape or flipped a page in their colouring book, a number would update on the screen in front of them. The other group didn’t receive that instruction or that feedback. What I found is that after ten minutes of doing this, the people whose colouring was being tracked completed more shapes in the book, but they also reported less enjoyment of the colouring.

Looking at the quality of the drawings, I had an independent rater code them for creativity, and counted how many different colours were used for each drawing. I found that quality and creativity went down with quantification. The colourings were less elaborate, and people used less colours on each shape when they were being tracked. 

By giving a reward, you make a fun behaviour about something other than itself. The source of motivation and the reason to do it moves from your enjoyment of the activity to being about what it provides for you

I also studied walking by giving participants pedometers. In the first group, I gave participants the option to wear a pedometer for the day. Everyone came into the lab in the morning, and we told half the participants that the study is about walking: you’re going to go about your day, and we’re going to ask you questions later on when you come back to the lab, do you want to wear a pedometer? Almost everyone said yes. The other group were simply given a pedometer that I had taped shut  – I could track how much participants were walking but they didn’t know they were being tracked. That was my control group. Everyone came back eight hours later; we subtly recorded the step count on the pedometers, and the participants were asked how much they enjoyed walking and how much walking felt like work. The people who knew they were being tracked, and could see that feedback – they walked more. But the people who could see the tracking, they enjoyed the walking less.

The last I looked at was reading by having people read an online book, like an e-reader except on a computer screen. With one group of people, a page number was displayed in the corner of the page. The other group just read without any page numbers, without any feedback on how much they’d read. The group that could see how many pages they read, read more but reported lower enjoyment of the activity. The final manipulation was having both groups read again without any feedback. For people who never received the quantification feedback, nothing changed; they just took a few minutes to read. But the group who had been receiving the page numbers, they went from receiving the quantification feedback and not having that information. Even though quantification led those people to read more in the first phase, after it was removed, those people read less than the control group.

Your quantified self may not be your happiest self Your quantified self may not be your happiest self
Kieran Clarke, Creative Commons (2012) ©

What are the implications for your findings?
These studies primarily looked at the activities and behaviours that people do for fun, finding that quantifying a leisure activity makes it less leisurable. But we often think about quantification and tracking when we’re trying to pursue some goal. If we decide to walk more because we want to be healthy, then quantifying walking both encourages us to walk more and doesn’t have as detrimental an effect on how much we enjoy the activity.

It’s the same kind of behaviour that happens when you put money on the table. One of the most fascinating aspects of these findings is that even without an explicit external reward, just providing this quantification can have a similar effect on how people proceed in their activity. You could say that measurement is rewarding in itself; my argument is that we just think about quantification for externally motivated behaviour. If you’re doing something for fun, you don’t really pay attention to how much of it you’re doing. That’s why, when you start drawing people’s attention to the quantification, it makes like the activity feel more like work.

When you’re intrinsically motivated to do something, you tend to be more invested in it. Things like quality or creativity are stronger when the motivation for a behaviour comes from the self rather than some external benefit

When you’re intrinsically motivated to do something, you tend to be more invested in it. Things like quality or creativity are stronger when the motivation for a behaviour comes from the self rather than some external benefit. In keeping with other findings in psychology, it seems that the mere attention to numbers or performance is enough to have the effect of undermining intrinsic motivation.

It’s short-sighted to ask all people to quantify, and to incentivise quantification, without understanding what the long-term implications might be. My studies don’t examine behaviour weeks, months, years down the road, but by understanding the psychology of what happens when we quantify behaviour, we can make some predictions about what will happen.

Not everything has to have a number attached to it Not everything has to have a number attached to it
Fitbit (2016) ©

How can these findings be applied?

  • With our growing understanding of the importance of health – especially for the economy – insurance companies are incentivising people to track their healthy behaviours, which might make a short-term gain in getting people to do more. In 2015, John Hancock became the first insurance company to offer discounts to policyholders if they allowed it to track their FitBit. But by turning the focus to the outcome of a behaviour, rather than the behaviour itself, extrinsic rewards don’t create a persistent, long-term behaviour.

  • If doing more of an activity is the most important outcome of a behaviour, then quantification can achieve that. But if we decide that having people enjoy walking is less important than having them walk more, then quantification might be a really big tool. What seems to be most problematic is when we start tracking something then stop tracking it. It sucks the fun out of the activity, and we no longer have an external cue that will encourage us to do more of it.

  • We’re currently widely quantifying the performance of children in schools. The No Child Left Behind Act in the US implemented widespread standardised testing in elementary and secondary schools to track student performance. In many aspects of their behaviour at school, it’s becoming increasingly prevalent – you might be inadvertently undermining some of the intrinsic enjoyment to engaging learning. We’re making learning less fun through quantification. What might that be doing to how kids experience school?

  • Brands can think about quantification when they consider providing customers external rewards for engaging with them. If your goal is to foster a relationship with your customers that is intrinsically rewarding and motivating, then bombarding them with external incentives to buy could be detrimental. In the same sense, quantification would have a parallel effect, undermining that relationship you’re trying to form. If companies wouldn’t use external rewards, then they might not want to use quantification, either.

  • As people feel the need to make leisure time more productive, we’re tracking more aspects of it. Travelling to different places and telling all your friends via social media about all the interesting things you’ve done there, the number of likes you receive can be seen as a quantification of the success of your post. What if one holiday album gets less likes than the last? Does that make the holiday be remembered as less enjoyable? It’s important to consider the consequences of quantification, and remind ourselves what we want from our leisure activities, so we can be discerning about what we measure.

Dr. Jordan Etkin is Professor of Marketing at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business, with research interests in motivation and goal pursuit. She's the author of ‘The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification’.

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