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Study examines EMA as research tool

Ecological momentary assessment offers way of measuring symptoms, moods in real time

Researchers affiliated with Butler Hospital and the Alpert Medical School investigated how ecological momentary assessment — a term that refers to data collection techniques that measure peoples’ symptoms and behaviors at a given moment — can be used to develop interventions for depression and self-inflicted harm. A paper detailing their techniques will be published in the Aug. 1 issue of the journal Current Opinion in Psychology.

“Ecological momentary assessment is a set of methods that are used to better understand an individual’s day-to-day experiences in the world,” said Michael Armey, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior. “They’re contrasted with standard self-report measures like questionnaires, because if you think about it, oftentimes people are really bad at remembering what they did in the past.”

EMA software created for use on smartphones and tablets asks participants to report their emotions at given moments in order to gather more accurate information, Armey said.

EMA is useful for finding out what causes problematic behaviors in participants, he said, citing self-inflicted harm as one example.

“If we look at the emotions people have in the hours prior to an episode of self-injury, we can actually predict when that behavior’s going to occur, because people start getting more frustrated and more upset,” he said. Personal devices can also measure a patient’s level of movement throughout the day, which is useful because lethargy can be a symptom of depression, he added.

“For researchers who are interested in emotion … the major benefit (of EMA) is that you aren’t relying on retrospective reports of feelings,” wrote Renee Magnan, assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University at Vancouver who was not involved in the study, in an email to The Herald. “How you feel in the moment can influence how you report your previous feelings,” she wrote. 

“The research that we do is largely designed to collect baseline information about suicide and self-harm phenomena using EMA, so we can develop interventions in the future,” Armey said. “We’re not really focused on treatment development now. That comes later when we better understand what’s going on.”

While EMA can be helpful for participants of all ages, it is most beneficial for patients who are comfortable with technology, namely young people, Armey said.

EMA has its roots in techniques — such as completing journals and questionnaires — that were prevalent before the invention of portable electronic devices, Armey said. Usage of EMA has increased over the past few years due to an increasing demand for more accurate participant information, he added.

One of the greatest barriers to EMA is its high cost. Software, staff trained in using the technology and participants who own smartphones or tablets are necessary for its use. Another issue is that some participants may find the day-long questioning annoying or invasive — it could bring to mind issues participants would rather not think about, Armey said.

Magnan wrote that she uses EMA in her own research, though she added that the method has flaws as well. “Perhaps one of the largest (flaws) is the issue of reactivity to the procedures. For example, if you are asking a person to monitor their cravings and report on the experiences of those cravings, you could potentially increase a person’s cravings. In other words, the process of self-monitoring could change behaviors, thoughts or feelings.”



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