​Exploring social presence: Why sharing your stats could make or break your goals

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Have you ever paused your run early as you're getting tired so your average mile looks faster? Or "forgotten" to log that extra cookie in MyFitnessPal to stay under your daily goal? Or pushed that extra bit harder in your workout because you know the stats will be sent to your Twitter feed automatically?

When it comes to fitness tracking, many of us shout about our achievements on social media (for the first few months at least). But in contrast, we give very little thought to the way we behave when it comes to manually inputting data, changing our routines to make sure our stats look more favourable or avoiding sharing data altogether out of fear that they won't look good compared to someone else's. Many won't even realise they're doing it.

Read this:How changing your mindset can help achieve your fitness goals

These tweaks to our behaviour may seem small. Yet it's important to be aware of how and why we make decisions in order to reap the biggest benefits from our tech. And it's important for tech companies to understand too, so they can create products and services that encourage authenticity and positive behavioural change — not false stats and a fear of sharing with others.

Understanding Social Presence Theory

The best way to understand why and how we might alter our behaviour in these scenarios is to explore social presence.

Social presence theory is the idea that your behaviour is different when people are watching. Social psychologists have been studying the impact of social presence theory and social facilitation effects (also known as audience effects) for a long time and most of the research you'll find online takes a look at the implications of social presence from an online learning perspective — it's still early days for relevant studies about wearable tech.

Yet when it comes to wearable tech, we can draw some valuable conclusions from the current body of research. Eleni Nasiopoulos, from the Cognitive Science and Consumer Behaviour Department at University of British Columbia, explains:

"Basically the premise is that if someone else is present, you monitor yourself and put forth your 'best behaviour' or conform to acting in a more socially appropriate way.

"It has been shown in previous work that social presence extends beyond the physical presence of a person and you can have similar influences on behaviour via technology (or anything really that makes you feel like you are under surveillance/monitored/watched - this is called implied social presence)."

In the realm of wearable tech, there are many instances of social presence — and implied social presence. For example, when you share stats on social media, if you're on a leaderboard of friends, if you know someone might look at your app, if you're part of an online community like MyFitnessPal.

But also your wearable is present. And although not a person, that's what Nasiopoulos refers to as implied social presence here. Although your fitness watch isn't going to make you feel like a person is watching you, there's still a sense that you're being watched and surveyed by technology. Although it sounds Orwellian, the power of implied social presence is huge. Just look at the way many people around the world behave because they think God is watching them.

But the key to understanding this, and what many believe is central to a study of social facilitation effects, is that one person's reaction to social presence could lead to completely different behaviour than another's. Nasiopoulos continues:

"There are many individual differences that come into play here with social presence effects, some people are more likely to impression manage than others, cultural differences and personality differences (specifically if the individual is neurotic and has low self-esteem vs. positive/extroverted and high self-esteem)."

The fact that individual differences play such a key part in social presence theory and its effects makes the area interesting, but at the same time problematic. Because you can't make any broad brush assumptions about its implications and what it means for every person on the planet.

In the same way that some people will manage their online persona on Instagram and show their most favourable selves, others will present a "warts and all" version of their reality without even thinking about it. For some this could be down to preference or cultural differences, for others it could be due to low self esteem and an innate fear that they're not loved.

Social Presence Theory and Tracking

Although highly subjective, the implications of social presence are valuable to wearable tech companies for a whole range of reasons. Firstly, understanding reactions to social presence could help to highlight limitations in the way wearable tech and health services currently work.

Nowadays many of the top wearables are packed with so many sensors they can automatically track a huge range of stats. In this way, we assume that we sit back and allow them to passively track everything we're doing with little margin for error. But in reality, we can make decisions about what, where and when they track in an attempt to alter the outcomes to look more favourable.

For example, you could change your runs, pause them early, change your routine so you're only presenting your best achievements, or simply take off your tracker when you're having a bad day.

When it comes to food and calorie tracking it gets a little more complicated. As of yet we have no wearable that'll measure each calorie as you eat it. So the onus is on you to enter in that data as accurately as possible.

In this way, being aware of social presence — both real and implied — could lead to inaccuracy and false results. For example, you may not input that extra 300 calories into MyFitness Pal because you feel embarrassed at your lack of willpower.

But it doesn't all have to be negative, there's a huge potential to use the idea of social presence in order to bring about positive habitual change. And if wearable tech companies understood this, they could adapt social presence to further motivate people who respond well to it.

Continuing the MyFitnessPal example, if some people don't log a calorie, this skews the data and causing big issues in the efficacy of the MFP ecosystem. But social presence could enable others to make more mindful food choices and realise they might not need the extra calories they were about to eat. Ultimately making a positive change that could start a string of more positive changes.

A 2007 study by psychology professor Liad Uziel supports this idea. He found that in public social settings all of us do a certain degree of impression management — changing the way we act to be more socially acceptable. But he found that, despite past studies, this isn't always born out of fear or defensiveness leading to a lack of self-control. But instead brings about what he refers to as a competing adjustment approach, which means to be considered more socially acceptable we often exhibit even more self-control and our performance is enhanced by our setting among others.

In many ways, these findings aren't all that surprising. For years people have been joining together to bring about positive personal change. Just take a look at weight loss groups, which despite some anecdotal evidence, have been clinically-proven to help people shed the pounds. It's the same idea, but applied in a virtual setting.

But that's not all. Social presence could actually solve more problems than it creates. Fitbit, Jawbone and many other apps have big social aspects, and services from the likes of RunKeeper and Garmin even have live running feeds so people can literally follow you on a run. So even just the implied social presence here could be a massive motivator, solving the real world problem of isolation.

But again, it's all down to the individual. One person's massive motivator could be the reason another person takes off their wearable for good — not realising it was because they were fearful of the social presence elements and just choosing to blame the medium instead.

Using Knowledge to Become More Empowered

But these findings aren't just important for wearable tech companies, they're also valuable to us. If we know we may change our behaviour based on who's watching, it gives us more freedom to at least do it with more awareness.

In another of Liad Uziel's studies from 2006 he said that "negative orientation toward social presence has a significant effect on performance." This means if you don't thrive in social settings you performance will often mirror that anxiety. But this shouldn't be a reason to just give up. Instead he believes that we can be empowered by understanding how we react to social presence effects and use this knowledge to inform future behaviour.

By learning a group setting pushes our fitness goals, we can seek out more (real or implied) group settings. Or if knowing you share your stats in a MyFitnessPal community makes you more inclined to lie about your calorie intake, you can stop sharing so much. This kind of awareness can be daunting at first, but you'll only make real, positive changes to your wellbeing if you're clued up enough to separate what scares you from what motivates you.