Can A Watch Change Your Behaviour? The Scientific Effect Of What’s On Your Wrist

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Can A Watch Change Your Behaviour? The Scientific Effect Of What’s On Your Wrist

Words by Mr Josh Sims

7 May 2021

Dr David Ellis used to wear a traditional mechanical watch, but now wears a fitness tracker so that he can record his daily runs. An associate professor of information systems at the University of Bath, Dr Ellis has examined our attachment to fitness trackers. Specifically, he’s been looking at whether wearing one encourages us to become fitter – “The evidence for that isn’t good, I’m afraid,” he says – or whether it’s fit people who tend to buy fitness trackers. As if simply wearing something on our wrists could change our behaviour…

Oh, but it might. You see, Dr Ellis’s interest in fitness trackers is an extension of a previous academic paper of his, co-authored with psychologist Dr Rob Jenkins, which suggests that wearing a watch is closely linked to conscientiousness. In fact, your levels of conscientiousness – by turns associated with being organised, emotionally stable and, of course, punctual, all traits linked to high achievement – are likely to be higher if you wear a watch, compared with someone who doesn’t.

“I suspect that it’s the act of wearing a watch that makes you more conscientious”

“The effect is small, but it’s there, and during the study we controlled for gender and age [as well as location and mobile-phone ownership], so it’s a consistent effect,” says Dr Ellis, who studied, under lab conditions, the readiness of hundreds of individual watch-wearers and non-wearers to make an appointment on time. As you might expect, watch-wearers were less likely to be tardy. Perhaps more surprising, a second study revealed that watch-wearers would tend to actually turn up well ahead of time.

“Now, is it that the watch makes you conscientious in this way, or that conscientiousness makes you want to wear a watch?” asks Dr Ellis. Well, he set about answering that question, too, with a basic four-week study once he’d convinced the ethics committee that his plan passed muster.

With a control group who usually wear a watch anyway, he sealed a digital watch to the wrists of a number of study participants (using a kind of tamper-proof, heat-sealed shrink wrap), gave a second group a plastic wrist band as a placebo, and nothing to a third group. None of the participants knew the meaning behind any of it. The result? “It did seem that, after the study, those who wore a watch came back with higher scores on the conscientiousness scale [as measured using standard psychometric personality testing],” says Dr Ellis. “Although further tests would be required to be sure, I suspect that it’s the act of wearing a watch that makes you more conscientious. Those in the group that wore a watch and decided not to continue to wear one showed a subsequent reduction in conscientiousness. So, it looks as though wearing a watch actually shapes your personality.”

Dr Ellis adds that there is another layer to this complex interconnectedness of who we are and what we wear. This might well be expected given that watches are redundant as purely time-giving devices in an age of ubiquitous mobile phones.

Before timepieces became affordable, mass-market products, merely owning a watch said something about the wearer. It came from the need to be in command of one’s time, because time was especially valuable, and in turn became symbolic of one’s importance. Now that watches are functionally superfluous, might they be sending a similar message today?

“In this day and age, wearing a watch is an expression of who you are – that is part of the watch’s purpose now”

“I think, in this day and age, wearing a watch is an expression of who you are – that is part of the watch’s purpose now. There are theories of ‘enclothed cognition’, how the things we have about us are there to tell people about ourselves, and around how people come to embody what they wear, though it’s not yet clear how they stand up,” says Dr Ellis. By way of example, he notes that being given a white lab coat to wear and being told it is a “doctor’s coat” will elicit increased sustained attention compared to what happens if the same item is described as a “painter’s coat”.

“Watches have many roles and this perhaps explains why they’re still popular, because the values placed on them haven’t diminished,” he says.

Before you rush to congratulate yourself on being a watch-wearer, however, there is a flip side. Dr Ellis’ study also found that while a watch-wearer may be more conscientious, with all of the other positive traits that suggests, the decision to wear a watch also correlates with lower levels of agreeableness and openness to new experiences. Intriguingly, so does wearing glasses.

Both of these traits are associated with stress. It stands to reason that if you’re always conscious of your schedule, the less able you are to just live in the moment, man. Keep that in mind as you buckle up.

Illustration by Mr Jori Bolton

Calculated wrist