Why Do Wristwatches Stop Working When I Wear Them?

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In some corners of the internet, there is a discussion of a strange phenomenon that remains unexplained and completely baffling. Perhaps you have had this conversation yourself. There are those who are absolutely convinced that they possess a peculiar and malevolent power – or simply bad luck – that causes every wristwatch that they wear to fail.

Quartz watches stop working when the battery dies. Self-winding watches stop if you forget to wind them, and automatic movements will stop ticking if you stop wearing them on your wrist. Beyond these three scenarios, some people wonder why their watch dies for no particular reason. Theories about personal “magnetism” causing watches to stop working have not been proven.

These people have the same thing happen to them time and time again: they buy or receive a new watch, slip it around their wrists, and within two or three weeks, the timepiece no longer functions, either having lost its synchronization or flat-out dying, inexplicably.

Is this phenomenon real, and if so, what could possibly explain it?

Some Possible Reasons Wristwatches Stop Working

Time stops for some men?

If you have never experienced this phenomenon of mysteriously stopped watches, you might not understand what the big deal is. Watches break, you’re surely thinking, what’s so strange about that?

For those who are familiar with this confounding occurrence, though, it’s more than just the simple matter of a few broken watches. The issue is that every watch they wear breaks sooner than later, usually in so short a time span that the wearer barely has time to get used to it. This would understandably frustrate anyone.

If this phenomenon is real (emphasis on “if” but we’ll get to that), what could possibly explain it?

Maybe she’s born with it, maybe she’s clumsy

When most people hear about this phenomenon, their first instinct is to be skeptical. These people turn to the skeptic’s favorite axiom, Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation is almost always the best.

In this case, if someone keeps ending up in the possession of broken watches, isn’t it most likely that they’re merely clumsy or careless? Maybe these people repeatedly hit their wrists against doorways or they keep dropping their watches over and over. It isn’t unreasonable to assume if a person can’t keep their property in working order, that they are responsible for the malfunction.

So, case solved, right? Mulder and Scully don’t need to be called in.

Not so fast, say the many people who own a collection of broken watches but swear they aren’t especially clumsy or careless. There are many people who refuse to accept this explanation because, after having had a collection of watches break on them, they were extra careful and yet still wound up with a dead wristwatch.

For such people, a more complex answer is needed. The answer that has gained the strongest following is strange, but it does have the veneer of scientific authenticity.

The laws of attraction

The internet sleuths who have been attempting to answer this question for years have come to the conclusion that the best explanation for the mystery of broken watches lies in our individual magnetic fields.

Not to get too technical here, but when you get down to the molecular level, all of us are basically just walking, talking, Netflix-binging electromagnetic fields. It’s the electrical fields between every atom that make up our physical bodies and allow us to interact with the electrical fields of everything else that exists.

Which is to say, when it’s suggested that some people might have a wonky magnetic field that interferes with their watches, it isn’t just hokum; there is some underlying truth to the idea.

It’s a popular theory for a host of reasons, though probably mostly because it makes these people with the broken watches sound like X-Men with superpowers (really lame superpowers, but powers nonetheless).

Unfortunately, as cool and “science-y” as the idea sounds, it doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny of actual science.

You may also be interested in reading: why watches lose time, How Smartwatches work or find out What a hybrid smartwatch really is?

The human magnet

As was concisely explained in this Slate article, it is a fact that humans have personal magnetic fields. The only problem is, those fields aren’t strong enough to disrupt a wristwatch or anything else for that matter.

For a person’s electromagnetic field to have the necessary strength to erase a VHS tape (the example from the article), it would have to be so great that it would almost certainly kill that person. The same goes for a wristwatch, or any other electronic or mechanical device you might use.

If your body had enough magnetic force within it to disrupt a watch, then not only would your insides be frying at this very moment, but you couldn’t be reading this article, because your computer or phone would have stopped working ages ago. Every time you went in public, you’d cause massive disruption.

You would definitely get a lot fewer invitations to parties.

Magnetic fields aren’t picky, if they affect some aspect of the physical world, they will have an effect on anything with which they come into contact.

Who can be believed?

If you’ve read this explanation debunking the idea of a disruptive, personal magnetic field, but you aren’t convinced, well, you aren’t alone.

After the initial Slate article was published, that author received an onslaught of responses from people who were still certain their personal magnetism was too powerful. Many of them used their watch problems as proof of it.

While it is true that an individual can temporarily build up an electric field within themselves, either by rubbing their feet to stir up static electricity or by being struck by lightning, there is no way to create a sustained, strong electrical field within an individual.

What that means is, if your watches keep breaking, you aren’t a candidate for Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

Fine, smartypants, then you explain it

Photo Credit: Clint Budd. Watch on right is a binary watch, showing the time as a set of binary digits

There are quite a few alternative explanations for the broken watch phenomenon ranging from the supernatural to the dismissive. Some contend that an individual’s personal “aura” can disrupt the physical world. This explanation is essentially a spiritual twist on the magnetic field explanation, with the added bonus that it’s harder to test empirically.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those that believe the whole phenomenon is just in people’s heads, a result of misremembering or confirmation bias.

According to this explanation, people who claim all their watches break are merely forgetting (or ignoring) instances when a watch worked fine or didn’t break suspiciously quickly.

Obviously, neither answer will convince everyone. Unfortunately, a definitive answer hasn’t been reached as of yet. It seems like the only way to put this mystery to rest is to conduct tests and publish the results.

Maybe we can launch a watch on Kickstarter together. Until then, it’s likely to remain a hotly debated topic.

And if you’re sick and tired of your wristwatches always dying on you, maybe you should try a pocket watch.

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