Replying to Emails Is More Stressful Than Public Speaking

And other curious findings from a test-drive of the Q Sensor, the stress-monitoring device that has everyone from market researchers to autism specialists intrigued.


The Q Sensor, from Affectiva, is a wristwatch-like device that measures your stress levels throughout the day. When it was first announced in October, scientists and marketers were excited about its potential uses. Clinical and market research typically relied on devices that were wired and bulky. Here was a handy, portable device that could be used in the real world. It measured skin conductivity, motion, and temperature, and the data could be easily uploaded via a USB cable and annotated and shared on your computer. Some saw it as a tool for adapting new treatments for autistic children.

This was mostly in the realm of hypothesis back in October. Now, as the device nears market (it’s due out this spring), Kristina Grifantini of Technology Review has taken the device for a test-drive, and has learned a few interesting thing about its actual uses.

First, the data isn’t that easy to parse. She needed the help of the device’s inventor, Rosalind Picard, to figure out what was going on. A spike might have meant stress; it might also have meant excitement. There was noise in the data from when Grifantini was typing. There were sudden drops in the levels that would gradually build back up to a baseline stress level; Picard thought these were probably from moments when the device was bumped and came in contact with dry skin. The device’s accelerometer and thermometer are designed to help mitigate noise of this sort in the data.

In the months since its first announcement, Picard and others have come up with a few ideas for how to improve the technology–linking it to a smartphone, for instance, to give alerts when someone needs to chill out. The device could also play a role in helping prevent drug relapses, which tend to occur in moments of great stress, said Picard.

The most intriguing finding from the Q Sensor so far? Everyday tasks can be more stress-inducing than big moments. Grifantini’s data revealed email-management caused more of a stress spike than a big meeting in the afternoon where she had to speak. And data from Picard’s day-trip to an amusement park with her son showed that getting him ready to go in the morning was more stressful than being on a rollercoaster.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.