Is there a data-driven personality?

October 14, 2010

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

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