Why Quantified Self Folks Do Not Like to Track Psyche?
In this post, I would like to raise a question that in some degree reflects my personal concerns about current trends in Quantified Self movement. Since this opinion is based primarily on my personal observations, I would really appreciate any feedback or comments from QS community. Please correct me if I am wrong, but why do we have so many tools and projects that focus on diet, sleep, exercise, but when it comes to tracking psyche, in particular, psychological states and traits, the inventory and range of QS projects is rather limited?
If you haven’t noticed it yet, we are already well equipped when it comes to tracking calories burned/consumed, steps taken, hours slept, blood composition, and other “tangible” aspects of our everyday lives. We actually got to the point that in mainstream and social media, phrase “Quantified Self” is associated exclusively with tracking diet, health and fitness. Even at the QS meetups, majority of self-discovery projects involve gadgets like Zeo, Fitbit and Bodymedia. Just a few people report tracking their mood, emotions or anxiety, and I am yet to hear about self-experiments and projects involving tracking self-esteem, confidence, agitation, creativity, charisma, attitudes, values, ego, and other psychological traits and states of mind. The attempts are being made recently to measure psychological states… (drumroll)..by passively monitoring physiological indicators. No doubt, the applications of actigraphy and psychophysics are thriving. But what happened to the good old fashioned psychometrics?
Somehow, the SELF in self-tracking was reduced to a handful of physiological and chemical indicators, while the more intrinsic psyche component has been ignored. I could think of several reasons for why this has happened, although to me, they sound more like excuses.
Lack of Automation
When big pioneers of QS movement like Gary Wolf and Seth Roberts were just starting to self-experiment and track their lives, the process of data collection was laborious: they had manually recorded every variable, and spent days searching for patterns and creating graphs. In the past ten years, developments in technology enabled us partially or completely automate the process of measuring things and collecting data. Just clip that gadget to the belt or put on that headband and voila! your data is collected, tabbed and reported for you. Such is the magic of passive measurement. In fact, there seems to be a major consensus among the QS folks that the less effort is required from us in collecting data, the better. Measuring psychological variables, on the other hand, still requires not only manual logging, but (gasp!) a certain degree of active THINKING. And that’s where most of the folks lose interest. But is putting some conscious effort in self-tracking really that bad? How difficult is it to make psychological self-tracking one of the regular habits, like brushing teeth or meditating?
Lack of Access to Tools
Part of it has to do with the perceived lack of necessary knowledge. How do you measure anxiety? Or self-esteem? Or happiness? What kind of questions should I ask myself? Luckily for us, most of the psychological questionnaires have been already developed, tested and validated by qualified researchers. So don’t reinvent the wheel, take it instead from those who designed and used it. You will be surprised how many questionnaires are available on the Internet, for free.
Misconceptions about Psychological Measures
Most people associate psychological measurement with lengthy questionnaires that would require anything from fifteen minutes to several hours. Naturally, it would be impractical to answer 10-40 questions on a daily or weekly basis. But you don’t have to! Remember, the main reason behind constructing long questionnaires is to make sure that the construct measured could be generalized. In other words, different questions about the same thing (e.g., anxiety) are asked again and again to make sure the overall concept is captured across different people. But in order to track YOUR self-esteem (or confidence, or irritation, etc), you need only one or two questions. Just read the questionnaire, and pick those one or two items that resonate the most, and in your opinion, reflect that psychological construct FOR YOU. And don’t be afraid to slightly modify questions or scales: it is all about adapting the instrument to your needs and objectives.
Fear of Subjective Measures
It’s true, when it comes to measuring performance and experimental treatments, subjective measures are often prone to biases like observer effect, placebo effect, etc., so self-trackers are encouraged to rely on more objective instruments like gadgets and apps. But self-questionnaires still could (and should) be used for complementary and validation purposes. Sami Inkinen found that a simple question about his mood in the morning is a good predictor of his later behavior and state of mind. I personally track my sleep using not only Zeo, Bodymedia and Sleep Time app, but also 2 simple questions (“was the sleep long enough” and “was the sleep restful enough”). So far, subjective assessment scale turned to be a better predictor of certain variables than objective measures.
I am not saying that physical health or diet are not important. After all, mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a healthy body), as Romans used to say. But psychological factors are not of lesser importance. And I am not talking about serious psychological conditions like anxiety, panic attacks or clinical depression. I am talking about temporary psychological states and more long-terms psychological traits that often affect our everyday lives. I recently read that 80% (!) of all health concerns reported to doctors are stress related. Simply tracking just chemical imbalances in the blood, or your diet and symptoms might not be enough, if stress is the root of your problems. And there are many other examples. How many times you did not want to go to the gym because of the bad mood, or your productivity at work suffered from that sudden blow to self-esteem? How many times sudden change in your emotional state caused you to turn to unhealthy food or alcohol? It is clear that physical and psychological aspects are often interconnected and are equally important parts of SELF, so why do we tend to focus only on the former, while ignoring the latter?
So I made it my goal for 2013 to start putting together a small inventory of psychological questionnaires that could be used to measure and track most common psychological states. In the meantime, I recommend you, my dear readers, to give psyche-tracking a try. You may end up learning more about yourself by answering 2-3 simple questions daily for a week than using that shiny expensive gadget for months.