Last week, I began an attempt at tracing a genealogical relationship between eugenics and the Quantified Self. I reviewed the history of eugenics and the ways in which statistics, anthropometrics, and psychometrics influenced the pseudoscience. This week, I’d like to begin to trace backwards from QS and towards eugenics. Let me begin, as I did last week, with something quite obvious: the Quantified Self has a great deal to do with one’s self. Stating this, however, helps place QS in a historical context that will prove fruitful in the overall task at hand.

In a study published in 2014, a group of researchers from both the University of Washington and the Microsoft Corporation found that the term “self-experimentation” was used prevalently among their QS-embracing subjects.

“Q-Selfers,” they write, “wanted to draw definitive conclusions from their QS practice—such as identifying correlation…or even causation” (Choe, et al. 1149). Although not performed with “scientific rigor”, this experimentation was about finding meaningful, individualized information with which to take further action (Choe, et al. 1149).

Looking back at the history of self-experimentation in the sciences—in particular, experimental and behavioral psychology—leads to a 1981 paper by Reed College professor and psychologist, Allen Neuringer, entitled, “Self-Experimentation: A Call for Change”. In it, Neuringer argues for a closer emphasis on the self by behaviorists:

If experimental psychologists applied the scientific method to their own lives, they would learn more of importance to everyone, and assist more in the solution of problems, than if they continue to relegate science exclusively to the study of others. The area of inquiry would be relevant to the experimenter’s ongoing life, the subject would be the experimenter, and the dependent variable some aspect of the experimenter’s behavior, overt or covert. (79)

The psychologist goes on to suggest that poets and novelists could use the method to discover what causes love and that “all members of society” will “view their lives as important” thanks to their contributions to scientific progress (93).

Neuringer’s argument is heavily influenced by the work of B. F. Skinner, the father of radical behaviorism—a subset of psychology in which the behavior of a subject (be it human or otherwise) can be “explained through the conditioning…in response to the receipt of rewards or punishments for its actions” (Gilette 114). We can see, then, a lineage of both behavioral and experimental psychologies on the quantified-self: not only do QS devices track, but many of the interfaces built into and around them embrace “gamification”. That is, beyond the watch face or pedometer display, the dashboards displaying results, the emails and alerts presented to subjects, the “competition” features, etc., all embrace what Deborah Lupton calls “the rendering of aspects of using…self-tracking as games…an important dimension of new approaches to self-tracking as part of motivation strategies” (23).

The field of experimental psychology from which behaviorism grew when, in 1913, John B. Watson wrote “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It”, was not specifically an invention of Francis Galton. This is not to say that Galton did not partake in experimental psychology during his eugenic research. In fact, his protégé and biographer, Karl Pearson, cites “a leading psychologist” writing in 1911: “‘Galton deserves to be called the first Englishman to publish work that was strictly what is now called Experimental Psychology, but the development of the movement academically has, I believe, in no way been influenced by him’” (213). Pearson, who included this quote in the 1924 second volume of The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, goes on to argue that American and English psychological papers are far superior to their continental counterparts thanks directly to Galton’s work on correlation in statistical datasets, though, per Ian Hacking, Pearson later notes that correlation laws may have been identified “much earlier in the Gaussian [or Normal] tradition” (187).

Here we begin to see an awkward situation in our quest to draw a line from Galton and hard-line eugenics (we will differentiate between hardline and “reform” eugenics further on) to the quantified self movement. Behaviorism sits diametrically opposed to eugenics for a number of reasons. Firstly, it does not distinguish between human and animal beings—certainly a tenet to which Galton and his like would object, understanding that humans are the superior species and a hierarchy of greatness existing within that species as well. Secondly, behaviorism accepts that outside, environmental influences will change the psychology of a subject. In 1971, Skinner argued that “An experimental analysis shifts the determination of behavior from autonomous man to the environment—an environment responsible both for the evolution of the species and for the repertoire acquired by each member” (214).  This stands in direct conflict with the eugenical ideal that physical and psychological makeup is determined by heredity. Indeed, the eugenicist Robert Yerkes, otherwise close with Watson, wholly rejected the behaviorist’s views (Hergenhahn 400). Tracing the quantified-self’s behaviorist and self-experimental roots, then, leaves us without a very strong connection to the ideologies driving eugenics. Still, using Pearson as a hint, there may be a better path to follow.

So come back next week and we’ll see what else we can dig up in our quest to understand a true history of the Quantified Self.

Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD student at UC San Diego. He has a very good dog named Buckingham. 


Choe, Eun Kyoung, et al. “Understanding Quantified-Selfers’ Practices in Collecting and Exploring Personal Data.” Proceedings of the 32nd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI ’14, 2014, pp. 1143–1152., doi:10.1145/2556288.2557372.

Gillette, Aaron. Eugenics and the Nature-Nurture Debate in the Twentieth Century. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Hacking, Ian. The Taming of Chance. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Hergenhahn, B. R. An Introduction to the History of Psychology. Belmont, CA, Wadsworth, 2009.

Lupton, Deborah. The Quantified Self: a Sociology of Self-Tracking. Cambridge, UK, Polity, 2016.

Neuringer, Allen. “Self-Experimentation: A Call for Change.” Behaviorism, vol. 9, no. 1, 1981, pp. 79–94., Accessed 19 Mar. 2017.

Pearson, Karl. The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton. Characterisation, Especially by Letters. Index. Cambridge, UP, 1930, Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.