The Quantified Self Movement and Behavior Analysis

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By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

The Quantified Self Movement emerged in recent years to support “every person’s right and ability to learn from their own data.”  Members regularly meet at events around the world to share data on their own behavior.  For example, a recent article tells the story of story of Kay Stoner, a self-described “data hoarder” who suffered from persistent headaches.  The author noted “ultimately, tracking and experimentation are the way she manages pain, finds hope, and communicates with others” including communicating with her doctor.  In her case, the data helped.

To behavior analysts, the Movement bears a striking resemblance to self monitoring – an evidence-based practice with decades of scientific research. For example, self-monitoring has documented successes in reducing electricity consumption, the posture of office workers, and for developing conversational skills patients who suffered severe head trauma. Whether used alone or in conjunction with other techniques, self-monitoring includes a variety of ways to have someone track their own behavior in order to increase or decrease the rates of future behavior.  Self monitoring itself can produce reactive effects, meaning the simple act of tracking your own behavior can change the behavior.  But it can also be used as a feedback mechanism in conjunction with behavior change or self-management strategies.

While self-monitoring shares much in common with the Movement, a critical difference lies in the goals between the two.  It is this difference that has lead some, such as Chris Anderson, the former Editor in Chief of Wired magazine, to say “after many years of self-tracking everything (activity, work, sleep) I’ve decided it’s ~pointless. No non-obvious lessons or incentives.”

For behavior analysts using self-monitoring, the goals are explicitly designed around behavior change.  The goals of the Quantified Self Movement, however, aren’t so explicit.  In fact, many people simply find the act of taking data on their own habits inherently rewarding.  It helps them understand themselves better, without any intention of changing their own behavior.  Behavior analysts might say that such people find the act of self monitoring to be automatically reinforcing.  These people do it for the act itself, for discovering self knowledge.

But for others coming to the Movement, as Chris Anderson did, who may not be as motivated by data for the sake of data, they may lose interest.  For some, knowledge detached from utility simply isn’t enough.  For behavior analysts, behavior change is always the goal.  But behavior analysts are also data geeks who likely track their own habits already.

Can both groups play together?  I think so.  The Movement has data visualizations that would be new and interesting to behavior analysts.  At the same time, behavior analysts are specialists in behavior change, and sometimes it takes more than simply tracking your own habits to change behavior.

Do you have experience with the Movement or self monitoring?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition.  He has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward can be reached at [email protected]


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