In a study involving volunteers who agreed
to provide information about their feelings and locations, researchers from
Princeton University have found that cell phones can efficiently capture
information that is otherwise difficult to record, given today’s on-the-go
This is important, according to the
researchers, because feelings recorded “in the moment” are likely to be more
accurate than feelings jotted down after the fact.
To conduct the study, the team created an
application for the Android operating system that documented each person’s
location and periodically sent the question, “How happy are you?”
The investigators invited people to
download the app, and over a three-week period, collected information from 270
volunteers in 13 countries who were asked to rate their happiness on a scale of
0 to 5.
the research was done
From the information collected, the
researchers created and fine-tuned methods that could lead to a better
understanding of how our environments influence emotional well-being. The study
was published in Demography.
The mobile phone method could help overcome
some of the limitations that come with surveys conducted at people’s homes,
according to the researchers. Census measurements tie people to specific areas
— the census tracts in which they live — that are usually not the only areas
that people actually frequent.
“People spend a significant amount of time
outside their census tracks,” said John Palmer, a graduate student in the
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the paper’s lead
author. “If we want to get more precise findings of contextual measurements we
need to use techniques like this.”
Palmer teamed up with Thomas Espenshade,
professor of sociology emeritus, and Frederic Bartumeus, a specialist in
movement ecology at the Center for Advanced Studies of Blanes in Spain, along
with Princeton’s Chang Chung, a statistical programmer and data archivist in
the Office of Population Research; Necati Ozgencil, a former Professional
Specialist at Princeton; and Kathleen Li, who earned her undergraduate degree
in computer science from Princeton in 2010, to design the free, open source
application for the Android platform that would record participants’ locations
at various intervals based on either GPS satellites or cellular tower signals.
Though many of the volunteers lived in the
United States, some were in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Israel,
Japan, Norway, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Palmer noted that the team’s focus at this
stage was not on generalizable conclusions about the link between environment
and happiness, but rather on learning more about the mobile phone’s
capabilities for data collection.
less happy when away from home
“I’d be hesitant to try to extend our
substantive findings beyond those people who volunteered.” he said.
However, the team did obtain some preliminary
results regarding happiness: for example, male subjects tended to describe
themselves as less happy when they were further from their homes, whereas
females did not demonstrate a particular trend with regards to emotions and
“One of the limitations of the study is
that it is not representative of all people,” Palmer said.
Participants had to have smartphones and be
Internet users. It is also possible that people who were happy were more likely
to respond to the survey. However, Palmer said, the study demonstrates the
potential for mobile phone research to reach groups of people that may be less
accessible by paper surveys or interviews.
Palmer’s doctoral dissertation will expand
on this research, and his adviser Marta Tienda, the Maurice P. During Professor
in Demographic Studies, said she was excited to see how it will impact the
academic community. “His applied research promises to redefine how social
scientists understand intergroup relations on many levels,” she said.
Image of woman staring at phone from Shutterstock.