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End of Watch

What happens when you try to change behavior without behavioral science?

Illustrations by Alex Castro

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Here’s how to cheat at the Apple Watch Stand goal: dangle your wrist by your side while you sit in a chair. I discovered this by accident — I dangle my arm during meetings — but once I found it out, I did it on purpose. I cheated while watching Thor: Ragnarok, in meetings, at brunch.

Cheating the calorie-based Move goal is harder, but doing restorative yoga while also turning the “yoga” setting on did the trick. I wasn’t doing the hard work I do during my Ashtanga classes, but it still “counted” as exercise, as far as the Watch was concerned. (Restorative yoga is mainly very nice stretching. There are pillows.) The idea of failing at my goal was so abhorrent, I’d devised ways to cheat.

So yes, I’d say the Apple Watch changed my behavior. I just don’t know if Apple intended for it to happen this way.

If you are in the US, as I am, you are probably aware of the ongoing obesity crisis. Here’s the overview: as of the most recent report in 2014, 70 percent of American adults aged 20 and over are either overweight or obese. That includes me; I have a body mass index of 26, which puts me in the overweight category.

This will doubtlessly be the point where some well-meaning reader emails me to tell me that muscles weigh more than fat, that people like LeBron James also qualify as “overweight,” and that BMI is a limited tool. This is true. It is also true that while I was recuperating from a bike crash, I gained enough weight that I went up a pants size. (It is fine; I have new pants.)

LeBron James might qualify as overweight because of sheer muscular bulk, but I do not. Generally, if you are overweight, your doctor will suggest you exercise more and eat less. They might put it in fancier terms, but it’s what they mean.

In the years between 1980 and 2000, the number of Americans who were overweight and obese skyrocketed. There’s a complex set of explanations for that, which essentially boil down to physical inactivity, empty calories and aggressive marketing, and (maybe) constantly shifting explanations of what eating well means. There have always been people who have insisted that simply exercising more could solve the problem. There’s good data suggesting that’s not right.

But exercise has plenty of benefits. At least 150 minutes of exercise weekly — that’s two hours and 30 minutes, or slightly more than 20 minutes a day — can help reduce the risk of heart disease and strokes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical activity can help reduce the risk of diabetes and some cancers, too. Working out doesn’t just strengthen your muscles, it strengthens your bones, and your ability to balance, which are things that become crucial with age. Exercise can reduce the risk of depression, help you sleep better, and even increase your chances of a long life. Seriously, it’s good for you.

And yet, only about half of American adults were meeting the recommended physical activity standards as of 2016, the CDC has found.

We created our sedentary lifestyles with technology: cars, robots, computers, and appliances all made our lives easier, and TV meant our leisure hours were often spent sitting down. For the technologically inclined, it’s tempting to believe that our problems can also be solved with technology, which is how activity trackers came to be.

Ben Franklin practiced an early form of activity tracking

Fitness trackers aren’t as revolutionary as their makers advertise them to be: food journaling and calorie counting go back decades. But fitness trackers and the quantified self-movement have breathed new life into these old practices. Ben Franklin practiced an early form of activity tracking. In his autobiography, he writes about his “Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection,” which involved tracking the days he committed faults against virtues like temperance, frugality, and chastity. (Yes, Ben Franklin kept a bullet journal.)

Franklin kept track of when he screwed up, which was a mistake. It’s better to note your successes. A gold star is a minor reward, but it is a reward. Rewards, as influential American psychologist B. F. Skinner noted, are highly motivating. Rewarding a behavior is a very easy way to reinforce that behavior. Humans really like gold stars.

There’s been a movement in health to try to modify behavior with movement trackers that reward behavior. Health insurers are especially interested in this idea: in March 2016, workers at UnitedHealthcare were eligible to win up to $1,460 if they met fitness goals as measured by Fitbit trackers. That program seems to be working, says Paul Sterling, the vice president of emerging products at UnitedHealthcare. The “engagement and activity rates that we’ve seen are very impressive,” he told me.

UnitedHealthcare isn’t alone. Blue Shield of California gives some plan customers incentives for hitting their wearable goals. (Blue Shield didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, both through email and over the phone.) Starting with its September 2016 fall enrollment, Aetna subsidized Apple Watches; for 2018, it’s going to both subsidize the Watch again. Aetna has also partnered with Apple to develop proprietary apps. (When I contacted Aetna for comment, the company referred me to this press release from September.) The companies’ interest in behavioral health interventions make sense — to influence health factors that prevent disease, you need to change behavior.

You need gold stars.

Changing behavior around eating better and being more active is hard, and in general, people fail at it. But there’s a whole science of how to change your behavior to succeed, and it pretty much all goes back to one guy: Burrhus Frederic Skinner.

Skinner’s big idea was basically this: you’ll do what you’re rewarded for. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a person, a cat, a pigeon, or a rat — rewards are a key part of animal behavior. The reward could be anything: a treat, some money, or just closing the rings on your Apple Watch. Skinner worked with rats and pigeons with the goal of improving the lives of his favorite animals, humans. Behaviorism is essentially a theory of how we acquire habits, the science behind why rewarding a child for writing makes a writer out of her.

Humans really like gold stars

“Essentially what Skinner said was that there are behavioral principles that are going on, and like gravity, whether you recognize them or not, they are operating on you,” says Julie Vargas, the president of the B. F. Skinner Foundation and also Skinner’s own daughter. “If you understand how things work at influencing what you do, then you can arrange those things in a way where you’ll get yourself to do what you want to do.”

We’re obviously living in Skinner’s world. It’s casinos and the lottery, and the variable reinforcement that first made email and then social media so sticky. It’s also the signs on regular doors that request you use the revolving door instead, the ones that ban smoking indoors so that it would be easier for smokers to quit. The Weight Watchers and Lose It, or the cult of Nudge. And it’s the acute interest from insurers in wearables including the Apple Watch, and monetized reward systems tied to the goal of changing behavior.

What’s often overlooked about Skinner’s work is that encouraging a healthy diet and regular exercise were among his areas of interest. In Walden Two, his painfully mediocre novel about a post-World War II commune living on behaviorist principles, commune members are meant to engage in routine outdoor chores in order to encourage them to exercise.

Skinner extended his ideas from Walden Two to the 1971 nonfiction book Beyond Freedom and Dignity where he famously denied the existence of free will. Behavior modification, he argues, is morally neutral and should be used for the betterment of society. The book infuriated both Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguist, and Ayn Rand, the objectivist author. It was the end of Skinner’s reputation. By 1975, Benjamin Spock, the media’s favorite pediatrician, wrote a letter saying he hadn’t bothered to read Skinner because his work was “fascist and manipulative,” according to The Atlantic.

Positive reinforcement is the engine that drives so many tech companies

All of this, of course, was before Facebook and the Like button. Positive reinforcement is the engine that drives so many tech companies. This strategy is sometimes called “gamification,” and it’s meant to make apps “sticky” so you’ll keep using them.

Meanwhile, parallel to the tech community, a number of researchers are working on behavioral health interventions. For instance, there’s Mitesh Patel, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who’s trying to figure out how to get Americans to be more active, whether or not they lose weight. One way to do this is with money. The most successful intervention he’s found involved promising people a certain amount of money if they are perfectly active, and deducting some of their winnings if they don’t make their goals. Stephen Intille, an associate professor at Northeastern University who studies health technology, has run studies on sensor systems that connect to mobile phones to track movement. One of the studies he’s co-authored is specifically about how people’s intention to exercise connects with whether they do, in fact, work out.

But there aren’t a lot of fitness trackers infused with legitimate behavioral science, says Patel. While plenty of apps use gamification strategies, those strategies tend to be ill-conceived, based on standard economics and the idea that people are rational. “They think about all the different possibilities, and ‘How much will this cake or this gym workout add to my overall life,’ and then make a decision,” Patel says. “But we know people don’t do that.”

The Apple Watch is a behavioral intervention device that was created without consulting any behaviorists. I asked Apple directly about this — both at the original presentation around the Watch and again just before publication. I was told that Apple doesn’t use outside consultants, though it does invite researchers to come discuss their work, including those who have interests in habit formation and behavior change. Apple didn’t formally hire any behaviorists to design the Watch, either.

The Apple Watch is a behavioral intervention device that was created without consulting any behaviorists

This lack of depth in behavioral research shows in the Watch’s reward design. It’s not just that the Watch doesn’t take into account the recent stuff — the old stuff Skinner produced isn’t reflected, either — but Apple hasn’t participated in the kinds of verification studies that might give someone confidence in their approach to fitness. As long as Apple isn’t making a specific health claim, it doesn’t have to verify its device is accurate with the FDA. Only a few studies exist on fitness trackers’ accuracy, Patel says, which makes it challenging for both patients and doctors to trust a smartwatch’s data. And the rewards aren’t set up in the ways we know are most effective. The Watch is ultimately a weak tool. It might be effective for some people, but there’s a lot of behavioral research out there that suggests it could be much more effective for many more people.

Also, a relatively small number of people have fitness trackers. Those people tend to be young, fairly tech-savvy, and, importantly, already engaged in their health. The price tag on the Watch suggests that working with insurers is probably the best way for Apple to get its Watch adopted. A Series 1 will run you at least $249, and it’s the cheapest model on offer. The Series 3 starts at $329. (The Series 2, which I tested, is no longer sold by Apple.)

In July, I attended an Apple briefing for journalists. I received the Watch in the mail as part of the whole shebang. Apple wants to convince journalists that it’s serious about health, and the Apple Watch is presented to me as the centerpiece of Apple’s health program.

The first Apple Watch was introduced as a sort of all-encompassing wrist computer, but that didn’t go so well. So Apple redesigned the device to prioritize health and fitness — both with new hardware and an updated user interface in new versions of watchOS. Series 2 introduced GPS and swimming functions; a year later, Apple rolled out more sophisticated heart rate tracking. While the sensors haven’t changed, the software for tracking heart rate has. Apple has touted its partnership with American Well and Stanford University to determine if the Apple Watch can detect heart abnormalities. Apple is walking a tightrope — its consumer devices don’t require serious testing or FDA approval — but Apple does apparently want to say something about health.

Apple invited me to a briefing in LA at a very nice house I was asked not to describe or linger on. I was first met in the foyer by Jay Blahnik, director of fitness and health at Apple. He is an immensely compelling man, who almost certainly has only ever taken the stairs no matter how fast and reliable an elevator might be. The beginning of the briefing focused on fitness, with models scattered around the indescribable house. One man swam laps in a pool, as far as I could tell, the entire time I was there.

The activity app, Blahnik says, is one of the most popular apps on the Watch. Originally built to be “more addictive” than the average pedometer, the app works with three rings: one for standing, one for exercise, and one for “Move.” Some goals are set for you. For example, you should stand for at least one minute per hour for 12 hours a day, as far as the Watch is concerned, and get 30 minutes of exercise. The Move goal is a little trickier, as it has to do with estimated calories burned. These are designed as rings, in part because it’s easy to glance at a circle and figure out where you are relative to it being closed.

“It turns out that everybody actually likes to be rewarded, even if they tell you they don’t.”

There are badges and stickers that commemorate certain accomplishments, and sometimes, special badges come out for new challenges. Blahnik, unintentionally echoing Skinner, said: “It turns out that everybody actually likes to be rewarded, even if they tell you they don’t.”

“The idea that small behavior changes can actually add up to something great is a real core philosophy of the activity app,” says Blahnik. “Partially because what we find is that’s going to correct everybody. If you’re a beginner, and you’re not very fit, small changes are what you need to do. But it turns out that if you’re really fit, small changes are all you have left. So, it ends up being something that actually works for everybody.”

The Watch, Blahnik says, is a favorite of personal trainers, who can follow along with clients’ workouts from the Apple Watch even when the clients aren’t around. (It’s possible to share your activity with up to 40 friends by signing in to iCloud. You’ll then be notified when they meet their goals, do workouts, or earn badges.) That means someone who gets in-person training two days a week can still get positive support from their trainer the other five days. “It’s a really convenient way to stay in touch with people you want to motivate,” he says.

Even without motivation from a personal trainer, the app updates to begin giving more personalized feedback during my trial run. The Watch can tell you how many minutes you need to walk near the end of the day to close your rings. It lets you know if you’re close to a streak, and it reminds you that you successfully closed all your rings.

A lot of activity trackers bring on fatigue because they constantly challenge their users, Blahnik says. And it’s true that most studies of fitness trackers report steep drop-offs. In one, a third of people who bought wearables quit using them after six months. In another, 20 percent stopped using their trackers after six months. And in a third study, 42 percent quit within the first six months. It’s not totally clear what the actual washout rate is, but these three studies taken together suggest it’s substantial. In order to try to fend that off, Blahnik says, Apple made sure people would put the Watch on for other reasons, like to take a call, to receive messages, or to use Apple Pay. This is a significant restatement of the Watch’s core value. When it was introduced, fitness was just one of its many features. Now it’s the primary feature, with the others added in service to it.

Some of the watch’s goals are just judgment calls

Some of the Watch’s goals are just judgment calls, Blahnik says. There’s no science that suggests you need to stand up for a minute an hour for 12 hours a day, but that reminder is the kind of thing likely to make a user reflect on how sedentary he or she is. Did you stand this hour? Did you move? “The average person is up 14 hours a day,” Blahnik says. “And one of our very, very important principles was, we don’t want you to go to a movie and not be able to earn your stand goal, because that just feels harsh. You should be able to sit through a whole movie, and most movies are two hours. There’s your two free hours.”

The data from the Watch gets written to Apple’s HealthKit, as do other kinds of health data. In a bedroom-type area — don’t dwell on it, because I can’t describe it — I was shown the Beddit sleep monitor Apple acquired in May of last year. It’s a sensor that goes under the sheets and is meant to track you throughout the night. There is no appreciable benefit to this type of sleep tracking, as far as I can tell, and none is particularly explained to me. Following that, we are led into a kitchen area to discuss food apps. There’s a calorie-tracking component to these, even though the medical community is generally moving away from calorie tracking. The customers want it, I’m told by Apple, which encapsulates the tech industry’s problem with these devices: what people want isn’t always supported by good science. Apple’s job is to sell units, so what the customers want wins.

The first week I put it on, the Apple Watch says I have to make 300 calories’ worth of movement in order to achieve my goals. So I do. This isn’t hard, and a couple days later, I actually triple my goal, which feels good. I know this because the Watch tells me. It feels good to get the little gold star and the silly badge that confirms I’ve made my stand goal, my activity goal, and my exercise goal for the week. The next Monday, the Watch tells me I should shoot for 750 calories.

This is when the failure begins.

The constraint on the Move goal is my rest days. I don’t do yoga on Tuesdays or Thursdays. Instead, I cook, usually in big enough portions that I can use the leftovers for lunch the next day. The relevant thing here is that cooking takes time; I can’t work out and cook at the same time. Without rest days, I hardly cook at all, which means I spend more money on takeout, which is generally worse for me than the foods I prepare myself.

The Apple Watch doesn’t care about any of this. Rest days are the limiting factor on my ability to hit my Move goal — while I easily hit 700 calories by the Watch’s measure on my workout days, I move a lot less when I take time off from working out. But rest days are crucial for exercise: they let your body recover. Without recovery, you don’t get the strength you’re trying to build, and you place yourself at risk for overuse injuries.

I stop letting the watch set my Move goal; it is too unkind to me

At times I remind myself of what Blahnik said: this is a minimum. You’re supposed to beat it. This reminder makes me feel worse, not better. I stop letting the Watch set my Move goal. It is too unkind to me.

The Move goal is adjustable — I can lower it at any time — but there’s no way to program the Watch to consistently honor my rest days. I just have to manually lower the goal for that day, and then raise it for the next one. Unfortunately, this requires too much of my attention. I have actual things to do that are more important than manually telling my fitness app to let me rest, so mostly I forget to do it until it’s too late. Even when I remember, I wind up with a different problem: I forget to reset the Watch to a higher Move goal the next day. I spent one week being psyched that I hit my goal only to discover that I had only hit the lowered goal.

So that 750-calorie goal, which seemed quite high, proved insurmountable the first week. I am especially resentful about not making my Move goal the second week when I went backpacking (not through any fault of my own, but because the Apple Watch’s paltry battery life and delicate nature didn’t seem like a good idea for the trail). It’s designed for indoor kids, I told my editor. I didn’t make the 750-calorie goal the week after that, either. Or the week after that.

Somewhere around the first month, I began to think of the Apple Watch as my failure bracelet.

The nickname stuck even when I lowered my Move goal to 500 calories, which felt like admitting defeat. I failed at the 500-calorie goal, too — the rest day problem again — but I got a lot closer.

I began to think of the Apple Watch as my failure bracelet

Eventually, though, I met all my goals, and I met them again the next week. Victory! I’ve got a handle on this thing! Maybe it’s not so bad. I sped past 550 to land on 600, the week that California was on fire. But because the air quality was so bad, those of us who live in the Bay Area were encouraged to avoid outdoor exercise. Since a lot of my exercise is based on being outdoors, this posed something of a problem for hitting the Move goal. I fail again.

I fail again the next week when I am in New York. Though I was walking a fair amount, I was also not going to yoga classes or riding my bike because I had a series of lunch, dinner, and drink meetings. One day, I actually forgot to put the Watch on before I left my hotel room — and I felt relieved, like a shackle has been taken off.

The point of activity monitoring on the Apple Watch is to make me more active, and it kind of works! The way I managed to eke out victories on rest days was simply by biking a little more, without going very far or very fast — I am still trying to rest, after all — but as soon as I miss a day and know I won’t get my badge for the week, I feel no particular need to keep trying.

This pattern makes a sad kind of sense in the context of behaviorism. I am rewarded once daily for making each of my goals: exercise, standing, moving. But I’m rarely rewarded immediately after activity, which is a mistake. Fitness instructors already know to reward you immediately. It’s why they immediately shout “good!” after commanding you to do something miserable, like lifting your hips higher in side plank. The praise feels good and keeps you working. The behavior you want to motivate isn’t making the goal; it’s the attempt at activity.

The effect of focusing on goal completion was that the Watch turned my fun reprieve (my time working out) into more work — work I could be nagged about, work I could fail at, work that I began to resent. One day, I was stuck in bed with a stomach bug. After a morning of, let’s say, gastrointestinal distress, I spent most of the day doing nothing in particular while I waited for my stomach to like me again. The following day, still a little wobbly, I strapped the Watch back on. “Elizabeth, your Move ring was off-track yesterday,” the Watch told me. “Get active today and close it out.”

The watch is good at punishment

The biggest opportunity when it comes to fitness trackers is real-time feedback, says Northeastern’s Intille. In order to provide good real-time feedback, however, fitness trackers need a sophisticated sense of what a person has actually been doing. And while devices can detect a general sense of how active a person is, when it comes to specifics, they’re pretty noisy. “They don’t know exactly what somebody’s doing,” says Intille. “It may not actually quite know what it is you’re doing as well as you might think it does.”

Some of the noise in fitness tracker data exists simply because the wearers are using it — however, they are using it, Intille says. In clinical studies, researchers can make sure everyone has put their sensor on the right way. In the wild, that’s basically chance. Another limit on fitness trackers are the sensors themselves, since most work with an accelerometer plus maybe GPS data. (The Apple Watch uses a heart monitor with two types of sensing systems and has a pressure sensor as well.) That’s noisy, too. How is a wrist-worn device supposed to tell the difference between waving your arms and bicep curls? To run sophisticated algorithms that could potentially provide more tailored feedback, the Watch needs to do a lot of computing, which drains its battery, or send data wirelessly to your phone, which will also drain its battery. “The [behavioral] intervention can seem a little broken because it doesn’t have enough information to really do that feedback cleverly,” Intille says.

Because of these basic limitations, the Watch doesn’t really reinforce my good behavior. Instead, it just tells me when I’ve failed. Then, if I have been successful, it raises the bar and keeps raising it, which guarantees that I’m going to have to wrangle with failure again. The Watch is good at punishment.

After four months with it, I’m tired of being punished. It’s no wonder people don’t wear fitness trackers for very long — Apple’s device isn’t the only one with this problem — but because I’m supposed to be wearing the fitness tracker for this article, I don’t take it off. I just figure out how to cheat. Which I do, flagrantly, for another month until I become disgusted with myself and send the Watch back to Apple.

Obviously, I am not the only kind of athlete there is; people run marathons, LeBron James and Serena Williams and Michael Phelps and other sports people exist. These star athletes inspire people or they would not be featured in advertising. It seems possible, even likely, that I am simply the wrong audience for the Apple Watch.

For example, the Apple Watch’s heart rate monitor is acceptably accurate, according to a Stanford study. That data isn’t hugely relevant to me, but for people who are training for something specific or trying to have a more-focused exercise plan than I do, it’s useful. Heart rate monitors help monitor the intensity of your exercise. For people who might not want to engage in intense exercise because of a medical condition or for those who are taking a targeted approach to improving their fitness, heart rate monitors can be a useful tool. Determining the intensity of your heart rate is key to for high-intensity interval training, for instance.

But there are a few design decisions on the Watch that appear to be wrong for anyone, aside from the misguided reinforcement scheduling. The most obvious is the Move goal, which counts calories.

Every part of calorie tracking is bad

Every part of calorie tracking is bad. First, the Apple Watch, like virtually every other fitness tracker, doesn’t measure calories accurately. Stanford researchers tracked energy expenditure with the Apple Watch along with six other fitness trackers, and they found readings that deviated from their standard by up to 43 percent. So I’m probably burning a lot less than my 600-calorie Move goal on a daily basis.

Apple, unsurprisingly, objects to the Stanford study’s results. The company points out that Stanford didn’t do the calibration necessary to make the watch more accurate. According to Apple, 20 minutes of outdoor walking (or running) using the GPS in the native workout app is necessary for calibrating the sensors when the Watch is used inside. Apple also says that the calories reported in the study represent an estimate of the calories burned above resting energy expenditure, while the reference equipment measured both. The company believes that this accounts for the discrepancy.

I’m not so sure. Most fitness trackers don’t directly measure calories; instead they rely on an algorithm to do so. The Watch tracks my movement and estimates my calories burned, based on a black-box proprietary algorithm. Another part of fitness tracker inaccuracy has to do with metabolic variations — especially if a person has lost a lot of weight in a short period of time, their metabolism may be slowed, an effect that may persist permanently. According to Patel, if I wanted to accurately measure my calories, there’s exactly one way to do so, and it’s for me to hook myself up to an oxygen mask and measure how much oxygen I burn in a minute.

The Apple Watch has plenty of company in counting calories; it’s common practice for treadmills and other exercise equipment to give fake, algorithm-generated calorie counts to users. These falsely specific counts of energy expenditure have always been a bad idea, though: if you think you burned 400 calories running, it’s easier to justify that dessert you want. Exercising makes you hungry, so if you feel you have “permission” to overeat because of your activity tracker, it’s possible the activity tracker has just been counterproductive. I don’t just mean this academically. I know how this works, I know the calorie counts are wrong, and I still reward myself after working out with a calorie-heavy meal because I feel I deserve it, and also, I’m hungry.

There’s also the question of what a fitness tracker should use instead of the flawed calorie measure. Steps are also imperfect — particularly for bicyclists! — and minutes exercising doesn’t capture intensity. This is a key problem with attempting to quantify one’s athletic activity, actually: you need a good measure. Calories aren’t a good measure, but I’m not sure that a decent substitute exists. Apple could potentially have made up its own metric, but that might have proved meaningless to users.

I asked Apple about all this and the company told me that a lot of people want to know how their calorie input relates to their calorie output for use in food loggers like LoseIt. Besides, there’s no way to measure calories with perfect accuracy, Apple told me. The company believes it measures calories as accurately as anyone can. But Apple also believes the rings obscure the specifics of the calorie count, (hopefully) leading users to focus on completion rather than on calories burned.

Every piece of technology has a point of view; it is designed for a user. The Apple Watch’s assumed user wants to set goals and complete them. This user is not easily dissuaded by failure. In fact, the user may be able to use failure as motivation. The user is self-motivated and requires minimal reinforcement. The rewards that do occur happen at a distance from the behavior they’re meant to reinforce, weakening their effect.

When I asked Apple how the Watch’s motivations had been designed, the company emphasized the difficulty of a one-size-fits-all device. Interrupt an activity for a reward, and you run the risk of annoying the athlete. In my conversations with Apple, the difficulty of making a device for everyone was emphasized repeatedly. The problem is that the Apple Watch is a device sold to everyone. But in reality, it is a device for people with a certain understanding and aspiration of athleticism. I dislike it because I am essentially a dilettante. But dilettante hiking is still hiking; dilettante yoga is still yoga; dilettante bicycling is still bicycling. I am a dilettante, but I am still off the couch.

It is probably wiser to reward the user for engaging in any athletic behavior and make setting goals optional. Apple, to some degree, gets that: walking counts. But if you want to make a watch for people who dislike competition, or who hate failing, a good move might be to make the goals optional, and just applaud activity, as quickly as possible after it’s happened. For a nation that isn’t moving, the right approach might just be to reward the minimum effort.

For a nation that isn’t moving, the right approach might just be to reward the minimum effort

The Apple Watch’s self-surveillance did prompt me to be more active, though, I’ll give the Watch that. It also made me more neurotic. I’d once joked about the people who pace frantically at the end of the day, trying to get all their steps in on their fitness trackers. Then I became one. It didn’t feel good. (Unsurprisingly, I did not lose weight over the course of my experiment with the Apple Watch.)

After Walden Two became popular, about three dozen communities declared themselves to be Skinnerian communes, Hilke Kuhlmann writes in Living Walden Two. Most of them failed. Two major ones survive: Los Horcones in Mexico and Twin Oaks in Virginia. Twin Oaks, however, is no longer a behaviorist community.

One smaller commune, Sunflower House, a cooperative in Lawrence, Kansas, also survives to the present. But initially, residents had difficulty with the chore system: it wasn’t democratic, and the people who moved in had no way to contribute feedback. “The house was clean and well-fed but unhappy,” wrote the researchers who set the house up. The system was quickly altered.

The residents of these behaviorist communes ran into some of the same problems that fitness trackers will: not everything that’s worthwhile to do is easy to quantify and measure. I know I’m stressed out when I start chugging antacids. That’s a visible behavior. But at lower levels of stress, it can be difficult to tell whether I’m just having a bad day or if something’s seriously wrong. And how, exactly, does one objectively measure contentedness or happiness? The upside to activity trackers is that they passively measure how much you move, without any active effort from you. The downside is the self-imposed pressure.

That doesn’t mean that behavioral interventions will never work; it just means that if you intend to use them on yourself, you need to know what’s reinforcing for you, says the B. F. Skinner Foundation’s Vargas. “I’m very sure that if someone emailed my husband and said, ‘Did you know there’s a fantastic sale on Hal Clement books at the such-and-such bookstore?’ he would start walking right away to get there because he loves Hal Clement,” Vargas says. (Clement, a science fiction writer, can be hard to find.)

That’s one reason why using active commuting as your method of exercise sticks: there’s always a reward, namely that you arrive where you’re going, Vargas tells me. And there are smaller reinforcing things along the way: the store you pass that means you’re halfway there, for instance, makes you feel good about the ground you’ve already covered. Personally, I just like walking and find it pleasant; that’s rewarding itself.

Fitness trackers shouldn’t make their users anxious and unhappy

When I spoke to UnitedHeathcare’s Paul Sterling, he was clear: we don’t have a solution to encourage people to be more physically active yet, but he doesn’t view that as a reason to give up. His group offers substantial cash prizes for reaching goals, but that may change. “We’ve taken a step, and it’s working,” he says. “Will we shift it over time as we learn more? Potentially.” The money may be affecting how people use the trackers, too: UnitedHealthcare hasn’t seen the drop-offs in use that many fitness tracker studies report, he says. (This data hasn’t been published, though Sterling won’t rule publication out.)

UnitedHealthcare’s program focuses on walking because it’s something most people can do. But Sterling suggested that there’s a possibility, with this kind of tracking, to approach chronic conditions — to reward people with diabetes who can keep the recommended schedule for blood-glucose testing, for instance. We are, he reminded me, still in the early days of this kind of technology.

That was a common thread, and one several people I interviewed mentioned. There might be ways to improve the algorithms and sensors so that the data from fitness trackers is better. Better designs might be possible for rewards, too, so the tracker rewards you for trying, not just succeeding. It’s the kind of iterative, tinkering approach to a healthy lifestyle that probably would have appealed to Skinner.

I’m not especially compelled by the Apple Watch. I am almost certainly part of the 20 to 42 percent of people who would stop using it within the first six months. I know other people like it; I’ve even met actual monsters who told me how much they loved the Breathe function. It doesn’t surprise me much that there’s a great deal of variation in how we all approach health and technology. There are all kinds of people. A rich tapestry, etc. But if behavioral interventions are to succeed in the long term, they shouldn’t make users feel anxious and unhappy. That’s the thing we’ve always known about exercise: you need to find something you enjoy doing and be rewarded for it.

Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how good the algorithm is — you’ll stay on the couch.

Update Jan. 25 12:20PM ET: Adds Apple’s response to the Stanford study on calories.