New Study to Give Detailed Picture of Behavior, Health, and Well-Being

November 18, 2009

A familiar technology is giving Penn State researchers a new view of human behavior and interpersonal interactions. Armed with cell phones, research participants will be submitting data in real time after every significant interaction (five minutes or longer) for three straight weeks. Researchers aim to provide a detailed description of how emotions, physical health, and personal interactions affect each other throughout the day. The project received $1 million from the National Institute on Aging as part of the National Institutes of Health’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding.

The study was designed partly to reach new heights in data collection frequency (by collecting real-time data), and partly to test new data collection technology. Rather than fill out questionnaires, which can be tedious, participants will submit data via smart phones with touch screen displays and an application that prompts them with questions on the spot. This will allow participants to reflect on their interactions within only a few minutes. Studies that collect data once per day (or less frequently) rely upon participants’ memories, which can be inaccurate. In contrast, the data collected in this new study should capture a more accurate and detailed “moving picture” of people’s lives, says Dr. Nilam Ram, assistant professor of human development and family studies and principal investigator of the study.

“We’re hoping to develop technology that can be used to better understand the intricacies of human behavior,” he says.

Participants will be reporting on their perceptions of health (general, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal), emotions (whether an interaction made them feel angry, happy, sad, etc.), and interpersonal behavior (actions they engaged in during the interaction, whether they perceived the other person as cold or friendly, dominant or submissive).

Ram and his research team will also be applying new statistical techniques that they hope will better describe the variability in individuals’ behaviors.

“Current analytical approaches require us to make strong assumptions about people. For instance, no family has 2.3 children, but that’s average we always hear about and use as the basis for predicting behavior,” says Ram. “The statistical methods we’re developing should help tailor theories so that they more accurately describe individuals and their own unique idiosyncracies. So we should be able to say, ‘this family has 3 children’ or ‘this family has no children.’”

Ram hopes that these approaches will eventually be able to refine existing prevention programs, such as those used to help people overcome addictions.

“If we can see patterns in an individual’s behavior—for instance, if a person automatically goes for a drink when something stresses them out—we might be able to tailor messages to his or her specific pattern, and head them off or at least shift them onto a path that will promote more positive, healthy growth,” says Ram.

The study will be conducted through Penn State’s Gerontology Center. Other key investigators on the project include Dr. David Conroy, associate professor of kinesiology; Dr. Aaron Pincus, associate professor of psychology; as well as Drs. Peter Molenaar, Michael Rovine and David Almeida, professors of human development and family studies; Dr. Denis Gerstorf, assistant professor of human development and family studies; and Martin Sliwinski, professor of human development and family studies and director of Penn State’s Gerontology Center.

Related article in Scientific American about this project.

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Editors: For more information, contact Nilam Ram at nilam@pop.psu.edu. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.