Software for an innovative wearable that
could optimise the collection of data in psychological studies is being
developed by researchers at Karl Landsteiner University of Health
Sciences in Krems, Austria (KL Krems). The device will be tested on
around 150 subjects as part of an investigation entitled ‘Laughter in
everyday life’*. The advantage of the wearable – in this case an armband
– is that it can be quickly accessed to record data and is simple to
operate. These advantages will come into their own in psychological
studies that use the experience sampling method, where subjects are
required to record everyday experiences. In the past, written records or
smartphones have been used for data collection, but this can result in
distortion of the findings.

*Note: if you would like to take part in the ‘Laughter in everyday life‘
study and live in Krems or the surrounding area, please contact us at
psychologie.forschung@kl.ac.at

Be it smoking, eating, or sex, investigating people’s day-to-day
behaviours using scientific methods is not so easy for psychologists.
This is because the measures needed to collect data often disrupt our
behaviour and influence the results. The experience sampling method
(ESM), which is commonly used in psychological studies, is usually based
on personal observations by the subjects themselves. They keep diaries
that record their actions, thoughts, feelings and so on. Previously,
people would keep handwritten records, but today smartphone apps are
often used. But such modern tools also inevitably lead to behaviours
being disrupted. A much more elegant solution is currently under
development at the Department of Psychology and Psychodynamics at KL
Krems: a smart wearable.

ALWAYS AT THE READY

Prof. Stefan Stieger of KL Krems’ Department of Psychology and
Psychodynamics is well aware of the pros and cons of using smartphone
apps for ESM. He and his working party have carried out several studies
using this approach in recent years. Although this enables researchers
to collect large quantities of data quickly and precisely, use of the
app also interferes with the behaviour being recorded: take out the
phone, unlock it, open the app, carry out the required activity, close
the app, turn off the phone and put it away again. “For instance, if you
want to study smoking habits and the participants are requested to
record their immediate craving for a cigarette in an app, because of
that – although this is an exaggeration – they don’t fancy a cigarette
any more,” says Prof. Stieger. “Wouldn’t it be so much easier if people
just had to press a button on their wrist?”

Prof. Stieger and his team are now programming such a wearable using a
freely available development board. This may sound straightforward at
first, but it is actually a major challenge. Although plenty of devices
are available for sports to measure body functions such as blood
pressure, a wearable for ESM studies needs to work differently. As Prof.
Stieger points out: “It has to be usable for the full range of
scientific purposes, and this means it will be an open source solution.
So it can be programmed to perform different functions, depending on the
study protocol.” The devices need to operate autonomously, save data
independently of a network, and have low power consumption. They also
have to be cheap, windproof, waterproof and shock-resistant.

NO SUBSTITUTE FOR TESTING

The team has already programmed some prototypes, so testing can now
begin. To do this, Prof. Stieger will focus on a truly pleasing aspect
of human behaviour: laughter. He has already analysed this topic as part
of an ESM study that employed smartphones for data collection. “A large
proportion of the participants – about 30% – also complained that they
didn’t have their smartphones with them all the time wherever they went,
and that it was simply annoying to take out their phone and record the
time they laughed when they were socialising with a group of people,”
Stieger explains. “Clicking a button on a discreet wearable on their
wrist would have been far easier.” And this is precisely what will be
offered to more than a hundred participants in the ‘Laughter in everyday
life’ project. In the process, Stieger will carry out a comparative
study of individuals who will again use a smartphone app. According to
Prof. Stieger’s hypothesis, this comparison will show that the group of
subjects with wearables supply more accurate data, meaning that the form
of data collection influences the findings.

Thanks to the ESM-based studies of everyday human behaviour that he has
performed in recent years, Prof. Stieger has helped the Department of
Psychology and Psychodynamics at KL Krems to build up a strong
international reputation. He has applied modern data collection
approaches from the outset. Prof. Stieger’s development of wearables
created specifically for scientific purposes underlines once again KL
Krems’ innovative approaches to generating knowledge in key bridge disciplines such as biomedical engineering, psychology and
psychodynamics.