Does viewing data about your life increase healthy behavior?

We’re already successfully measuring our lives today with our money (Mint), with our social relationships (Facebook), and our physical locations (Foursquare). I recently posed a question on Twitter:

Is anyone aware of high quality research that suggests viewing personalized life data changes everyday behavior? For example, does Mint change an individual’s spending behavior for the better?

The consensus was that there are possibly isolated situations that have shown some sort of possible positive behavioral change in the short term. One person said Weight Watchers uses data to effectively change behavior. But popular diets have not been shown to be effective on a population level two years after starting the diet.

I got a few anecdotal responses saying that Mint has reminded them after purchases to curb frivolous spending. But if Mint doesn’t significantly change people’s behavior, what will? And if Mint can’t do it with our money (everyone loves more money!), who will be able to do it with changing healthy behaviors (does everyone love more “health?”). Mint uses passive data collection requiring the user to do nothing after setting up an account. Your daily spending information just appears in a dashboard. Mint currently has about 1.5 million users. That’s plenty of people to understand the effects of data on behavioral change. Mint has said that “50% of its users have changed their spending behavior” but I haven’t been able to find the actual published study. And here’s an interesting interview on adaptive pathwith Aaron Forth, VP of Product at Mint:

LB: This topic of how information affects behavior is interesting. Mint does a good job at turning data into insight, but once you have you have the insight, what do you do with it?Do people change the way they’re managing their finances as a result of interacting with Mint?

AF: Absolutely.Yeah.That’s what we want. Mint in its initial state was very much an analysis tool.It helped you understand where the money’s going and where it’s coming from, what you’re earning and what you’re spending.But what we wanted to do is try to affect people’s behaviors.We fundamentally believe that the reason you work so hard in life is to enjoy the financial benefits of doing that work.Whether your goals are to put your kid in college or be able to buy a home or to afford a nice car and put good food on the table, achieving those goals is where Mint wants to help people. The way we do this is by highlighting and focusing on the insights on current behavior, and then promoting actions that people can take to make change a reality.

LB: Within Mint I can definitely see where the design promotes that insight about current spending patterns and opportunities to save, but what about the long view– seeing the long-term benefits of those actions?

AF:The stuff that we’re in progress with right now is really about allowing people to express their goals in life — not necessarily in financial terms, but in human terms — and then helping them to take steps to achieve those sooner.

So, imagine making trade-offs. What if I didn’t get 40 Starbucks over two months? What would that mean for me to be able to get out of debt? Or to my retirement age? Or to my ability to put my child through college?It’s too easy to open your wallet and spend. We’re focused on helping people to try to understand the trade offs so, at a minimum, they are aware.

If Mint is unequivocally successful in changing behavior, we should probably focus more efforts on developing services that use data to change everyday health behaviors. But if we can’t do it with our spending behaviors, will we be able to do it with our health behaviors?

I also got an interesting response from Mike Bodge at Lolz. He pointed me to The Prius Effect:

Toyota designed the interior of the Prius to reinforce consumer behavior, and to call attention to the product’s most important differentiating quality: fuel efficiency.Inside the vehicle, a dashboard console helps the driver understand when the two energy mechanisms (the gasoline engine and the bat- tery) are engaged, how power is flowing, and how this affects gas mileage as the car is being driven.For instance, if a driver accelerates quickly, the MPG meter instantly drops to 7; at cruising speeds, the MPG meter reads above 55. Upon braking, the flow of energy reverses, as the regenerative braking charges the battery.This graphical display communicates complicated electrical concepts clearly to even technophobic consumers, and as it does so, it constantlyconnects the consumer’s behavioral choices (driving technique) with the Prius’ private benefits (fuel savings) and public benefits (decreasedemissions). By showing the driver how his use of the gas and brake pedals affect gas mileage, it continually reminds the driver that fuel efficiency is as dependent on the driver as it is on the technology. And by showcasing high mileage as it is being achieved, it continually shows the driver how much more efficient and environmentally friendly the Prius is in comparison to conventional automobiles.

Now that the Prius enables a driver to fully understand fuel efficiency, there are those few “radicals” taking it to the extreme called hypermilers. They can get over a hundred miles per gallon in a Prius by understanding real time data and a few efficiency principles.

So how does all of this relate to our health? Kevin Kelly has been covering this topic regularly atThe Quantified Self.How can insight from data help us permanently change our everyday health behaviors? Is this a field for only the few radical “hyper-healthers?” Or is this truly a new branch of consumer services/gadgets that will appeal to the masses?

But I have yet to see a compiled list of necessary data qualities that will best influence behavior change. So…what are the necessary features of data that lead to insight that lead to meaningful behavioral change?

The ideal data should be:

  • Passive (the user has to do nothing to acquire the data)
  • Non-invasive
  • Real-time
  • Focused (like a dashboard that measures only one thing such as fuel-efficiency, metabolic rate, or glucose)
  • Linked in real-time to the desired effect
  • Simple to gain insight and understand
  • Linked to private, personal benefits (ex. decreased weight or increased mood)
  • Linked to public benefits (ex. how decreasing caloric intake connects to global carbon footprint)
  • Quirky, positive feedback
  • Non-threatening negative feedback that doesn’t make you feel badly about your less than desirable behavior
  • Socially connected to take advantage of human competitive nature?

Any more that need to be included?