Is there a data-driven personality?

3841160835_2357897a19_m.jpgLet’s admit it. People who do stuff are more interesting than those who don’t. Naturally we’re biased as Self-Quantifiers, but don’t you love running into folks at gatherings who have surprises and results to share about themselves, gained from experimentation and tasty data? It’s stimulating to hear about an insight (“I eat less when I’m happy”), a problem they’re getting a handle on (“I’m seeing if exercise helps my mood”), or a delightful surprise (“I’ll be darned – I’m smarter when I eat butter.”)

A meta question I’m curious about is whether we can quantify the self-quantifier. That is, can we find a personality type that’s common to all of us who experiment on ourselves? Let’s play with it by looking at a few possible attributes.

  • The insatiably curious. If any of these dimensions are universally applicable, I’d guess it’s the trait that got the species to where it is now – the urge to answer innate questions like “Why did that happen?” or “What if I tried…?” Can there really be anyone who isn’t curious?
  • Gadget lovers, early adopters. There’s no question that the explosion of self-tracking widgets is exciting. Electronics for measuring sleep, exercise, even power consumption provide motivation through novelty, and ease the tracking burden through automation. A little test: Anyone using low-tech tools? Graph paper and lab notebooks for example?
  • Risk takers. Collecting data means trying new things, and as a species change is hard. In my case, some of the experiments I try out can feel pretty scary. In your life, how much of a stretch is it for you to do your experiments?
  • Fans of Occam’s razor. Experimentation is a function of the scientific method, which requires a rational “prove it to me” mindset. Can we be motivated to collect data about ourselves yet not be skeptical?
  • Problem solvers. Often our foray into experimentation is driven by a problem such as a major health concern. (There are over 600 of them at Alex’s CureTogether.) I wonder if motivation to solve a particular situation is at right angles to a general experimental sense. Or maybe it’s the other way around – those who work actively to address a problem are by definition self-experimenters.
  • Tireless self-improvers. As Gary pointed out in his New York Times piece, we track data ultimately to peel back the layers of our behaviors: “The goal isn’t to figure out something about human beings generally but to discover something about yourself.” There’s probably a set of folks who are happy with themselves the way they are, but I don’t think they congregate here. Then again, I always appreciate when someone chimes in and questions our movement.
  • Thrill-seekers. If it’s true that we have built-in novelty detectors, are we more likely to try things because results are more stimulating? I’d argue that, because of our curious nature, experimenting feels good. In your case, what kind of jolt do you get from discoveries?
  • Willing to change. What’s the point of thinking up things to try, doing them, and then capturing and analyzing results if we don’t make a change, either in our thinking or behavior? I don’t mean that change is always the goal (I’m a firm believer that observation leads to awareness, which leads to change), but without change is this work simply waste? Maybe there are stages, starting with “data-curious?”

What do you think? Is it possible to define useful characteristics that capture the data-driven personality? Do any describe you? Which ones would you add or remove?

[image from x-ray delta one]

(Matt is a terminally-curious ex-NASA engineer and avid self-experimenter. His projects include developing the Think, Try, Learn philosophy, creating the Edison experimenter’s journal, and writing at his blog, The Experiment-Driven Life. Give him a holler at

About Matthew Cornell

Matt is a terminally-curious ex-NASA engineer and avid self-experimenter. His projects include developing the Think, Try, Learn philosophy, creating the Edison experimenter's journal, and writing at his blog, The Experiment-Driven Life. Give him a holler at
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10 Responses to Is there a data-driven personality?

  1. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks for this insightful post! For me it boils down to two things – curious and OCD.
    It’s an interesting question though, and one that more researchers (not to mention reporters) are wanting to ask – what makes self-experimenters tick, why do we do what we do?
    Probably most of us don’t really know, we just do it. :)

  2. dorijoyreader says:

    about self-experimenting, i tried to not speak for a day, plus no emailing, no chatting, no texting, no “take the trash away” notes on the fridge, no output whatsoever, but i did have input from the outer world, emails, websing around, hearing neighbours fight etc; i set that day to be on a saturday, because of work, obviously; while having the usual walk with my dog, that saturday morning, still sleepy, i told her “don’t go there” (useless otherwise, she never listens), and much later around midnight, while finding something interesting on the webs, i turned to my husband and started to tell him about it; in between, i didn’t speak at all, and the experiment was meant to be over on the awakening of the next day
    what did i learn from it?
    not much, compared with the feeling that i am doing something EXTRAORDINARY when i first spoke on sunday morning.

  3. Matthew Cornell says:

    @Alex: Your OCD point really made me think – I hadn’t considered that as a motivation! I bet you’re right that most of us just do it out of curiosity and drive, which are great traits!
    @dorijoyreader: What a great experiment! I’m so glad you shared it. Your exercise made me think about that remarkable moment of insight when you realized such a basic part of being human – talking – is so truly extraordinary. I think there’s a general class of experiments there – creating “negative space”, which hopefully leaves room for insights. Great stuff.
    (P.S. Thanks to reader moose for pointing out a grammar error.)

  4. Max says:

    I would add a good chuck of self-centeredness and narcissism to the list as well! Perhaps I should only speak for myself, but at least to me, your list looks like a bunch of compliments about self-trackers! Not that that’s a bad thing…I think we’re a great bunch of folks too-

  5. James Edward Johnson says:

    I think I guaranteed my spot in this pool of people when I recently showed a couple people my “dating spreadsheet” that helped me analyze the costs and benefits of asking someone out on a date …

  6. Matthew Cornell says:

    @Max: Good point re: narcissism. Yes, I was thinking mostly positives when I wrote this, but you and Alex add another dimension. Maybe a follow-on post – “Dysfunctions of the data-driven personality?” Gary turns the phrase “pathologies of quantification”… Maybe the question is whether or not the self-focus is ultimately helpful. In my TTL work I’m including Collaboration as a principle, which might draw us into a bigger discussion, and maybe out of our heads. Thanks for the comment!
    @James: I *love* your dating spreadsheet idea. I have a close friend who recently divorced (very happily) and treated re-entering the dating scene after 10 years of marriage as an experiment. Like you, she came up with some good ones like fabricating a profession, or being very up-front about intimacy expectations. Quite courageous, really. Hey – Any low-cost-high-value results?

  7. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Well, I wouldn’t say I classify OCD as a dysfunction – it’s just something I live with that makes certain things easier and certain things harder. :)
    Great conversation you’ve started, Matt!

  8. Cannolo says:

    The attributes you list are a good profile for the people I try to avoid. There seem to be lots of them around Berkeley. They’re curious, but I find most are curious only about themselves. In fact, the minute anyone talks about anything else, they get bored. Just a rule of thumb.

  9. Pingback: Your life in data: Is it all about events and properties? | Quantified Self

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