Why Wear a Watch? Good Question!


Why wear a watch? To look debonair!

“The effect of watches on one’s awareness of time is similar to the findings of a study on improving attention while driving, among teens with ADHD,” Mister Lichtenstein (above) writes at medium.com. “Giving the study subjects a car with a manual transmission made them more engaged in the act of driving (and less prone to distraction) than giving them one with an automatic transmission. A regular wristwatch is a temporal stick-shift.” Why wear a watch? To pay more attention! Hold on a second . . .

The study was based on “ten adolescent drivers with ADHD” who spent two 30 minute sessions on a driving simulator (not shown). So the sample size was inadequate, the experiment didn’t involve real world conditions, we don’t know how much experience the subjects had with manual transmissions and there was no control group. Oh and ADHD is a condition prone to widespread misdiagnosis.  

So we can’t rely on Mister Lichtenstein’s citation in his Why Wear a Watch? treatise. The writer presents no additional “evidence” for his watch => focus => better time management theory. Even if it’s true, does a watch create the less-distracted behavior or do people less apt to lose focus tend to wear watches?

SWATCH for kids

Mr. Lichtenstein claims a wristwatch “changes your relationship to time and, in turn, the way you spend it. This is the single most valuable thing a regular watch does for its owner.”

O.K. then, how does it change that relationship? *crickets chirping* All we’ve got: Mr. Lichtenstein’s suggestion that watch wearers are less prone to distraction. Otherwise, I have no idea what he’s talking about.

Core Seven Sins greed

I am, as a matter of course, prompt. I credit genetics and upbringing for my time management, rather than my watch. My timepiece enables my promptness; it doesn’t create it.

As a former hypnotist and watch nerd with a non-scientific sample size in the thousands, I can state without reservation that a person’s ability to focus – their “distractibility” – has nothing to do with their choice of watch (or their decision not to wear a watch).

Mr. Lichtenstein relies on an extremely dubious argument to support his inescapably vague claim. “Using a watch, especially a mechanical one, means having to periodically set the time. This ritual causes you to be aware of time in a much different way.”

Grand Seiko

What way might that be? Does winding a watch make you more aware of your mortality? Make you treasure your life more by reminding you to live in the moment? I don’t know about you, but winding and setting a mechanical watch alters my perception of watches, not time.

Mr. Lichtenstein moves on to assert that people wear watches to make “a personal statement” (what my father used to call a piercing glimpse into the obvious). But let’s not abandon his initial point. Let’s use it as a jumping off point, to consider the idea that people wearing analogue watch faces perceive time differently than people consulting a digital display. Here’s my theory . . .

Camo G-SHOCK in the wild

A traditional watch presents time as a percentage of a whole. A digital watch presents time as a numerical value. Philosophically, an analogue watch represents time as an endless continuum. A digital watch represents time as static moment. A temporal snapshot, if you will. 

It’s the difference between a digital and an analogue speedometer. The former is more precise and mentally demanding. The latter is more generally indicative and less mentally taxing. Both have their real world advantages and disadvantages. Which is why I use a digital speedometer to avoid speeding tickets and wear an analogue watch to avoid temporal anxiety.

Apple Watch default face

I’m not suggesting that my choices apply to the gen pop. But the fact that so many people can’t read an analogue watch makes me wonder if the rise of digital time telling has a downside. Are we becoming a nation that sees time (and politics) in absolute terms? Have we lost temporal nuance?

Hold that thought. Why did Apple go with an analogue face for the Series 6’s default display? How many buyers switch to a digital “face”? The answers would tell us something about time perception. I’m just not sure what.


  1. You wear a watch for ambient awareness. Humans are very adaptable: our brains allow us to “see” things our eyes do not. Without a watch, your mind will always “know” the time, but it will sometimes be the wrong time–and the uncertainty around your ambient sense of the present time is correct can distract you.

  2. There is both the mental comprehension of a quantity, and then associating characters with the corresponding quantity (and vice versa). It is learned but not innate. Graphical portrayals, like an analog clock face, seem to take less to understand, if not to decipher. The mind can break it into pieces, quarters of an hour or whatever, whereas digital displays require actual math calculations to have any real understanding of when you are in relation to another time.

    A minute as one rotation of a second hand is a quickly grasped concept. As you said, the porton of the whole is all visible. The constant rate of change is observable. I guess this is why G-Shock is obsessed with those little spinny meter displays on their digital watches, because it’s more legible than variation through flickering digits.

    I remember some insurance agent claiming that manual transmission drivers were higher risk because “they wanted to get through the gears” which I thought totally wrong. On an automatic, you put your foot down and it will just keep going till terminal speed is achieved. The manual steps require observation and constantly provide a frame of reference.

    Actually the involvement required may be part of it too. If you can read numbers, you can read a digital time. Reading analog is a separate skill, it requires more initial, distinct, training. As a separate skill, a bit more conscious thought is used.

    • I remember some insurance agent claiming that manual transmission drivers were higher risk because “they wanted to get through the gears”

      What a maroon!

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