Personal analytics and the future of psychological research

There has never been a better time to be a psychological scientist

In the history of psychology there have been three really major methodological developments.

The first was to realise that psychology could be thought of as a science (as opposed to a philosophical endeavour). The scientific method was relevant to the study of human behaviour and one could conduct experiments and expect replicable results.

The second was to understand that mathematics could be used to describe human behaviour. In fact the application of mathematics happened at about the same time as the introduction of the scientific method, as psychology sought to import the methods of physics.

The third was the introduction of brain imaging technologies to understand how the brain implements the mind.

I would argue that we are now in the midst of two new revolutions in methodology.  Wearable technologies and the Internet of Things provide us with ways of quantifying the environments in which individuals operate. Social network data for the first time allows us to record the relationships and interactions between group members in situ.

To give a sense of why these new developments are so crucial consider my area of research – human memory. One of the fundamental tenets of memory is that performance depends on experience. This statement is true in multiple senses. Firstly, in order to retrieve memories we need to encode them. But we learn to encode and experience determines how we go about it. Harry Barrick was one of the primary figures in memory research in the 20th century (he lived through a great portion of it). I asked him a few years ago what he thought the main result of the century had been. He replied that it was the understanding that there is no such thing as a nonsense stimulus. When Ebbinghaus first started experimenting with human memory he used randomly constructed syllables (like YBW, KWJ) in an effort to control for people’s prior experience. In the end though it was not entirely successful as people are quite ingenious at constructing meanings. Perhaps YBW means “why be W when you could have been just you?” How people encode depends on their prior exposure to stimuli and to encoding strategies.

Secondly, you can never isolate people from interference. After encoding efficiency, the next most important determinant of memory performance is interference – both from the experiences that occur between encoding and retrieval (retroactive interference) and from the experiences that occur before encoding (proactive interference).

All of this creates a problem for memory research though. Typically, we bring people into the laboratory, show them some stimuli and then ask them questions about those stimuli. We know that their prior experience is critical determinant of performance, but we have only very crude measures of that experience. We might record the frequency that a particular word appears in language – assuming that it would have been about the same for that individual – or we might ask them to write diaries or rely on the stories of family members and friends – all products of the memory system themselves.

Experience sampling promises to change all that. For the first time, we can sense what an individual is experiencing as they experience it. We can create a veridical and ubiquitous recorded and use that to inform our models of memory processes. That augurs well for a more quantitatively rigorous, ecologically valid and translationally relevant memory science.

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