How to Use the Experience Sampling Method in Psychology

experience sampling methodIf you have ever felt baffled as to the sequence of events or emotions that triggered an anger outburst, then you might want to know more about ESM – Experience Sampling Method.

Experience sampling is a type of market research where users fill out some kind of journal. These journal entries are usually filled out in regular increments of time as the event occurs.

The journal entries are typically structured with both open-ended and closed-ended questions as well as ratings.

Experience sampling can be utilized in many different ways, from researching how customers feel about a new restaurant, to asking factory workers on a production line to fill out a daily diary to help process improvement or to monitor the sequence of emotions that led to a specific response.

In this article, we will review experience sampling in terms of what it is, how it works, and how it might benefit the practice of psychology.

What is Experience Sampling?

Experience sampling in terms of psychology is a method of recognizing various thoughts and behaviors. This type of methodology might be used in behavioral research or psychotherapy.

Participants use this method to keep records of their thoughts and feelings on a regularly scheduled basis.

This might be done in a variety of ways from:

  • Asking someone to take note of his or her feelings and thoughts via a timer.
  • Keeping some kind of journal.

Utilizing this methodology, participants can learn to identify situations and events that might trigger them so they can better manage the behavior.

For example, someone who has an anger management problem may also need to deal with a variety of other kinds of negative emotions associated with that.

By keeping a journal and keeping track of situations that trigger the anger, they can learn to manage their emotions and respond in a healthier way.

By keeping a record of their thoughts and emotions, they can then learn to identify and avoid, or counteract, that type of situation going forward, which can help them control their feelings of anger.

 

What is the Experience Sampling Method?

The experience sampling method is merely a way of finding out more about an experience, while the event is actually happening in real-time. It’s a unique way of examining an experience in context as people go about their daily routine.

The idea is for participants to stop what they are doing, and take the time to note their experiences over a period of days, weeks, or even years.

Sometimes a more objective method might be used as well, such as an activity monitor or a random sound recording. (Zirkel, 2015)

This unique method is designed to help researchers better understand one’s thoughts, actions and activities with minimal intrusion into someone’s life. (Stephanie, 2017)

Experience sampling:

  1. Involves real-time data that is collected at the moment.
  2. Collects data from the actual environment where the event is taking place.
  3. Typically involves utilizing and collecting a large amount of data.
  4. May include a brief open-ended or close-ended series of questions.
  5. Involves very careful data collection.

Experience sampling may also be referred to as:

  • Ambulatory self-reporting.
  • A daily diary type of method.
  • Ecological momentary assessment.
  • Intensive-longitude design.

Participants typically note their experience at the occurrence of the event, at a pre-selected time interval, or by signaling.

The occurrence of the event usually involves some kind of key event. For example, a study on time management might ask someone to record specific details for instances when they are late for an appointment. A study on pain medication might ask the participant to answer a short series of questions about when they feel the most pain.

According to Estrin and Sim (2010), a GPS feature on cell phones was utilized to study the time of day participants left the house. This measure of time was then used as a measure of wellness for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity or asthma.

In another study, college students were asked to complete a survey immediately following each class. The survey focused on the student’s state of mind during class, in terms of their level of either anxiety or sadness, or feelings of calmness and happiness. (Zirkel et. al.)

The researchers intended to use the data to see how these experiences might affect students in terms of future decisions in whether or not to take a certain class in a particular discipline or major.

Signaling methods might involve texts, phone calls or some kind of pre-set timer.

The Science in the Moment (SciMo) study involved passing out beepers to high school students with the overall goal of determining how different sexes, male versus female, felt about science education.

The beepers were programmed to go off randomly during class, signaling students to complete a short survey about their experiences.

Experiencing sampling has some definite advantages when compared to other methods of data collection.

For example, it allows for better access into people’s lives that might otherwise be difficult to gain access to. Recall bias is also reduced since the findings are recorded in real-time.

This methodology allows researchers to study the various thoughts and feelings one might have in very specific situations and conditions. As a result, the statistical measurements are often much more accurate.

 

The Experience Sampling Method App

One of the apps for experience sampling is the Experience Sampler App, which is an open-source application for smartphones, which means the denoting software with the original source code is made freely available. This allows researchers to both modify and distribute it.

The application is specifically designed for experience sampling studies.

The application is built on JavaScript, HTML5, and CSS3, which are the most widely used programming languages on the web.

The application also uses something called Cordova, which is an open-source library that allows JavaScript to access native device functions. The application is compatible with both Android and iOS without any native code.

The application has many benefits including:

  1. Data storage availability.
  2. Low operational costs.
  3. Easy customization.
  4. A snooze feature.
  5. The ability to utilize functions without a cell signal.
  6. Easy to create your own functions and features.

Many of the things you need from experience sampling are offered free of charge within the application. Researchers also have much more control over data collection since every response is stamped with a specific time.

The experience sampler data can also be stored locally, without an Internet connection, making it very useful. As a result, it can be used with or without a cell phone signal.

Since the app is available on both Android and IOS, there is also minimal selection bias. The application is easily customizable as well because you can create whatever features you might need.

 

Studies Using the Experience Sampling Method

According to Verhagen, Hasmi, et al. (2016) the experience sampling method can be useful when assessing issues such as the quality of life, sensitivity to stress or other types of coping mechanisms.

These types of issues are often much more difficult to measure using more common methodologies like cross-sectional questionnaires for example (Verhagen, Hasmi, et al., 2016).

The experience sampling method can be applied in many different areas including:

  • As a naturalistic momentary type of intervention.
  • In clinical trials or single case clinical trials.

The use of technology such as smartphones makes the implementation even easier.

The experience sampling method is actually an overall term that refers to a family of momentary assessment techniques that often use triggers or signals to collect data (Verhagen, Hasmi, et al., 2016).

The ESM (experience sampling method) is typically comprised of a number of things from a questionnaire done in the morning to an evening questionnaire in addition to a beep questionnaire (Verhagen, Hasmi, et al., 2016).

Questions are typically short questions that can be rated quickly and the content of the items is subject to the theme of the assessment.

 

Why is ESM used in Research?

There are many advantages to using the experience sampling method.

  • Since the experience sampling methodology is done in one’s natural environment it has a higher ecological validity (Csikszentmihalyi, Mehl, Conner, 2013).
  • This type of method also reduces strain on the memory since the actual moment is measured repeatedly over time. This also increases accuracy (Shiffman, Stone, Hufford, 2008).
  • The assessments are typically collected in different situations over time allowing researchers to better understand and separate the various mental states and psychological frameworks (Myin-Germeys, Oorschot, Collip, et al. 2009).
  • Reduces the need for multiple questionnaires which provides a rich data state (Csikszentmihalyi, Mehl, Conner, 2013).
  • Thanks to repeated measures that take place over time, assessment error is greatly reduced (Stone, Shiffman, Atienza, et al.).

All of these features help to improve the validity, reliability, and transparency of which is helpful in clinical practices.

The experience sampling methodology makes it much easier for clients during feedback sessions as well, because it helps them to acknowledge and translate the findings to their daily lives. (Simons, Hartmann, Kramer, et al., 2015).

There are a few perceived disadvantages. The experience sampling methodology may be viewed as time-consuming and even demanding, according to Myin-Germeys, Oorschot, Collip, et al., (2009).

Another concern involves selection bias, because there may be patients that are unwilling to participate. ESM does have advantages over more traditional methods typically used in clinical trials. It is a complex assessment method and careful consideration should be taken when using this kind of approach.

The experience sampling method provides a comprehensive view since the same instrument can measure multiple constructs of life.

This kind of broad measurement tool has the potential to replace a much larger body of instruments making it a valuable method.

While this methodology does have great potential, according to some, it has not yet reached the gold standard in terms of clinical trials. (Mathis, 2016).

 

A Take-Home Message

The experience sampling method is one of the most reliable procedures there is when it comes to studying people’s daily lives in terms of their experiences, activities, and feelings throughout the day.

One of the main advantages of the method is the fact that it does not take subjects out of their natural environment. That is one of the main reasons why ESM studies are referred to as ecological in nature because all of the research takes place within a natural setting in real-time and in real life.

On the other hand is the issue that ESM relies on self-reporting measures, which are subjective, as well as the idea that one has to be willing to actively participate.

The experience sampling method can apply to a wide range of scientific topics from panic disorders, to pain management to medical interventions. It is an excellent method for gaining an understanding of someone’s feelings and how they view life in terms of their issue.

 

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About the Author

Leslie Riopel, MSc., is Professor of Psychology at Northwood University. She writes on a wide range of topics at PositivePsychology.com and does research into mindfulness and meditation. Leslie’s unique blend of experiences in both real estate & psychology has allowed her to focus on fostering healthy workplaces that thrive.

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