You may have seen me. I was the woman who got out of the passenger’s side of a vehicle in a long line of cars waiting to exit a parking structure. Yes, I know it was dark and cold; yes, I was wearing heels; yes, I know there were dozens of cars behind us and my husband, who was driving, objected as I jumped out and slammed the door, but I can explain.
You see, it was 5:50 p.m. – ten minutes to 6 – and I hadn’t hit my Fitbit hourly step goal. If I missed it, I wouldn’t get the green smiley face of approval from the device I wear on my left wrist – like a sacred, rubber wedding watch – and that would make me very upset. Disproportionately upset, according to my husband, but he’s just jealous.
My Fitbit and I have been together for a little over two years. To say our relationship is the textbook definition of codependency wouldn’t be inaccurate, and I am fine with that. I’m well beyond the point of trying to rationalize my obsession for my Fitbit, or feeling ashamed that I value its evaluation of my day above any other’s.
I stopped hiding the compulsion to nail each and every goal my Fitbit demanded of me, and now, I openly admit to acting as a hypnotized operative under the influence of a glorified pedometer. I have walked out of movies, doctor’s appointments, and even a PTA meeting that I was presiding over, just so I could log steps.
How does it happen, you may wonder, that a seemingly ordinary person falls prey to such mind control? Would I rob a bank like Patty Hearst or go all Manchurian Candidate at a political rally if my Fitbit told me to? That would depend on how many steps each crime involved.
KIDDING. (Everyone knows that a hypnotized individual doesn’t commit acts under hypnosis that she wouldn’t otherwise do.) In all seriousness, though, how can I justify my extreme and continued servitude to this gadget while acknowledging its bizarre power over me?
To understand the puppet-master behind the curtain, we must first examine the principle concept of a Fitbit. Like other fitness trackers, it is designed to keep an accurate account of its wearer’s physical activity and promote healthy exercising habits through a set series of hourly, daily, and weekly goals.
Upon attaining each goal, the wearer is rewarded. The rewards vary depending on the goal, from an impressive vibrating display of digital fireworks, wrist-side, to the aforementioned green smiley face that appears on a Fitbit smartphone app.
Using positive reinforcement to elicit a desired response is a well-studied approach to human behavior, proven effective in any number of situations. So in that respect, the Fitbit’s success isn’t surprising. The more intriguing question is why does it utterly captivate some and not others?
Getting technical for a moment, the instant gratification of a Fitbit’s digital feedback triggers the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward center, which can be particularly alluring to those of us with addictive tendencies. But I’ve heard vigorous housework produces the same results, and you don’t see me enslaved to that process.
The way a person interacts with a Fitbit is as predictable as it is personal. It is also exponential: If you’re compulsive, competitive, and body-conscious to begin with, expect to experience full-blown neuroses with that thing snapped onto your wrist.
As if there wasn’t enough weirdness surrounding my Fitbit-ophiliation, my husband recently pointed out perhaps the most curious phenomenon. In addition to tracking steps, mileage, calories, active minutes, sleep, and hourly activity, my Fitbit also tracks flights of stairs. It wants me to do 10 flights a day, before I get my green smiley face, but sometimes (forgive me, my darling FB, for airing our dirty laundry) its count isn’t accurate.
Sometimes, I go up and down the stairs 20 times, and it logs two. Now, don’t think I’m delusional; I know that I’ve reached my goal, but – here’s where it gets crazy – I just choose to believe my Fitbit’s version of reality over mine. Unless it registers on my Fitbit, it doesn’t matter, and I will run up and down the stairs until I get the official green face.
If my relationship with my Fitbit sounds unhealthy, controlling, even bordering on abusive, I take full responsibility. I am the one who encircled my own wrist, I am the one who charges the battery (only at night, after I sit down in front of the TV, so I don’t miss steps), and I am the one who set up the dashboard for optimal viewing.
There is something inexplicably compelling about being attached to an impartial partner. My advice for anyone considering a similar fling is this: Fitbit users fall into two categories, those who love their Fitbits and those who need them. Tread softly, my friends.